by Cary M. Mazer
Venture Theatre at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through May 9, 215-923-2766, ext. 21
Dig down deep enough and you discover your own history. That, simply put, is what happens in Doug Grissom's Deep Down, directed by John Lawler at Venture Theatre.
It's 1963. Ned (Doug Johnson), the white guy, a self-styled "dirt-poor cracker," is on a wild goose chase searching for Hernando de Soto's gold on his Florida property. Daniel (Brian Anthony Wilson), the black guy, is the parolee he hires to help him with the digging. Hannah (Samantha Greenman), Ned's surly teenage daughter, sits, frowning, on the rump-sprung automobile seat resting on the dirt and watches.
They're all three of them as ignorant as dirt. And, as they dig up - literally - the dirt of Charles Kirby's set, sweating under a yellow sky, they act out all of the power relationships - white/black, employer/employee, citizen/con, father/daughter, white woman/black man - that characterize the post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights movement Deep South.
What they find in the dirt, and what Hannah finds by digging in books at the local historical society, is the local history of slavery: the indignity of chains, and the fleeting dignity of a few eloquent freed blacks who spoke out in the state legislature before Reconstruction was buried beneath impenetrable layers of segregation and racism.
It's been several months since February and yet it still feels like Black History Month. But what keeps Grissom's play from being just a history lesson is the quality of the writing, which heaps on metaphors of excavation, history, identity and self-discovery as fast as Ned and Daniel heap up piles of freshly turned dirt. And the acting is first-rate: Johnson, Wilson and Greenman each indelibly establishes the social and psychological categories of their characters, and then broadens and deepens them as we watch their characters dig up their history and their roots.
But, remember, it's 1963. What Ned, Daniel and Hannah dig up has to be reburied. And the newly forged human relationships, undermined by the subterranean forces of the community and the times, are swallowed up by the exploitation that underlies them. Neither history nor dramaturgy will let either the characters, or the playwright, finish the job they have begun. And when the play ends, abruptly, we can see that the only things the characters have dug up are things that were planted there for them by the playwright, only a few inches below the surface. As one of the characters observes, "sometimes answers lie deeper."