WILLIAMSTOWN — There is a kind of simplicity about Jonathan Payne's new play, "A Human Being, of a Sort," that is at once welcoming and unfulfilling.
Payne drew inspiration for his drama — which is being given a handsomely mounted, dutiful world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage — from two books, one, Pamela Newkirk's "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga," the true story of a Congolese Pygmy who was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906; the other, Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnss," which, the playwright says in the show's program, "introduced me me to how social power structures are built, how American slavery ended, but then how the government found a new way to imprison people and continue an old system of slavery under a new name."
The stakes are indeed high for the principals in this drama — The Pygmy, Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard), who has been betrayed by the explorer, Samuel Phillips Verner (Matthew Saldivar), who found him in the Congo and seduced him into coming to America with the promise of opportunity and a better life; Smokey (Andre Braugher), a convict doing time on a prison farm in Tennessee who is brought to the zoo by its administrator, William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), to work as Ota Benga's guard and keeper; and Hornaday, for whom the presentation of the caged native African holds the potential of boosting the zoo's reputation and notoriety.
Smokey, who is serving a three-year sentence for theft, stands to gain his freedom before his term is up if he is successful in keeping Ota Benga under control. One man's freedom depends on another man's imprisonment. But Smokey's charge, while he may be physically slight, is formidable. Ota Benga has a restless, determined spirit that insists upon a loosening of the ties that bind him. He plays on Smokey's unassuming compassionate nature; his own life experience as a black man held captive by the laws of a white society and culture that sees little difference between a descendant of slaves on the one hand and an "oddity" from Africa who is being exhibited in a zoo's monkey house. Ota Benga's painful cry for freedom to move about the zoo grounds carries the resonance of Smokey's desperate, anguished plea to Hornaday not to send him back to the prison farm.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Smokey cannot give in to Ota Benga's demands without risking his own freedom.
It doesn't help that three black ministers (played credibly by Keith Randolph Smith, Sullivan Jones and Jeorge Bennett Watson), have teamed up to pressure Hornaday into turning Ota Benga over to them so he can be made into a "proper" God-fearing human being.
"A Human Being, of a Sort" is at its most fully engaged, emotionally and intellectually, in the scenes between Smokey — played movingly by Braugher as a simple, decent man of instinct, resourcefulness and desperation — and Hornaday, played adroitly by Wood, who finds dimension in a character who, in lesser hands, could well emerge as shallow and one-dimensional. Only a step or two away from freedom he craves as much as Ota Benga craves his, Smokey will do everything he can, including bending, without surrendering, his pride in order to make this situation work to his advantage.
Smokey's scenes with Ota Benga are repetitive, less fully engaged.
To its credit, director Whitney White's production moves steadily through its intermissionless two hours. In the end, however, "A Human Being, of a Sort" is a not-so-astonishing play about a presumably astonishing life.