Writing a play about racism and slavery, Michael Hagins finds a perfect setting to explore these issues on the stage of the Paradise Factory. All of the action takes place in the fall of 1863 on a train traveling from the South to the North, a usual route to freedom for escaped slaves. However, in â€œThe Long Rail Northâ€ the traveler is a 12-year-old white girl, who, ironically, has no clue that she is on her way to freedom, convinced that she is being taken away from her family.
In addition to such an intriguing premise, the play contains armed conflicts and hand-to-hand fighting, which creates the effect of a 3-D movie on the stage of a small off-off-Broadway theater. Against this background, we witness the transformation of a young Southern girl, who starts out close-minded and ends up realizing that one must judge people by their actions and not their looks.
When the protagonist, Molly Barnes (Morgan Patton) first comes to consciousness, she finds herself on board of the train in the company of an African-American man, Thomas Morgan (Xavier Rodney), and she is petrified. On the one hand, she thinks herself superior to the man on the basis of race. On the other hand, she understands that she is at his mercy. It takes Molly a while to realize that Thomas acts as her benefactor, protecting her from every danger that comes their way. Then her animosity gives way to respect.
In view of that, it is interesting to point out that the girlâ€™s opinion about her father changes as well. As she tells Thomas in the beginning, â€œHeâ€™s the smartest man I know.â€ In her words we find both the daughterâ€™s pride and the comparison between her father and Thomas.
This perspective changes as Molly meets other people and sees that neither the Confederate nor Union soldiers necessarily act in the interests of those whom they are supposed to defend. â€œWhatâ€™s the difference between being up North and being down South?â€ Thomas says. â€œIn the South itâ€™s just cruelty, but in the North weâ€™re clowns to them.â€ This makes him feel like he does not belong anywhere, and he wants to help Molly â€œ â€™cause everyone deserves a chance to live.â€
Therefore, Thomas takes care of the girl out of moral duty, despite the fact that her father was his former master. This reminds us that peopleâ€™s priorities change over time. In the end Molly admits to Thomas, â€œI always loved my daddy, but he wasnâ€™t a nice man, not even to my mama.â€ As we see, meeting Thomas turned this girlâ€™s world upside down, making her rethink her attitudes and loyalties.
Also a plantation ownerâ€™s daughter, Cassie Flowers (Natalie Ann Johnson) helps Molly out of her ignorance by encouraging her to look at Thomas as a person and not some strange African species. Unlike Mollyâ€™s daddy, Cassieâ€™s father used to treat his slaves benevolently and even paid them. When he was murdered, Cassie ran away, wandering from one train car to another and earning a nickname â€œCoal Car Cassie.â€ By introducing Cassie and her story, the playwright shows us that not all Southerners during the Civil War were necessarily racist and close-minded. This makes us hopeful that Molly will eventually become one of those people, too.
Since the action takes place in the middle of the Civil War, armed confrontations fit in well with the plot. Due to the theaterâ€™s small size, the charactersâ€™ every scream and grunt ring in the audienceâ€™s ears. Although it is disturbing to watch them beating each other up, we cannot help our astonishment. The actors, especially Mr. Rodney, portray every element of their pain, including gasping for breath and screaming in agony. This brilliant performance is not only the actorsâ€™ merit; we must also give credit to Mr. Hagins, who was responsible for fight choreography and direction, and the Fight Captain, Ms. Rebecca Overholt.
As the fighting occupies a large portion of the show, we realize that it represents both an armed struggle for Mollyâ€™s liberty and the battle for her soul. Traveling on that train up North, the protagonist learns to transcend her prejudice, and her experience encourages us all to be more open-minded as well, for everyone has his or her own biases that need to be combated.
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