“Torn Asunder” relates a mostly-forgotten part of history

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Brittany Davis and Steven Makropoulos on stage
Torn Asunder: Brittany Davis and Steven Makropoulos play a slave and a slave owner. Photo by Valerie Terranova

The painful story during and after the Civil War when trying to find long-lost kin

Brittany Davis and Kara Green on stage looking at each other
Torn Asunder: Brittany Davis, left, and Kara Green co-star as slaves freed by the Civil War in “Torn Asunder.” Photo by Stephanie Gamba

Part of America’s history with slavery was that family members were often cruelly separated from each other when husbands and wives, parents, and children were separated and sold by their owners. But part of that history, not as widely known, was the anguish and pain after the Civil War’s end of those family members desperately trying to find their long-lost kin. It was an often disappointing task, and it is that story that is told in the new work Torn Asunder, being presented at Luna Stage in West Orange.

Basing her story on historical records, playwright Nikkole Salter tells the story of Moses (David Roberts) and Hannah (Kara F. Green), two slaves united in a ceremony performed by their owner, James (Mark Hofmaier), in place of a marriage — which was illegal for slaves.

Moses and Hannah’s happiness is short-lived when James dies, his last will separating the couple. Hannah is sent off to the family of James’ son-in-law John Bussey (Steven Makropoulous), a shopkeeper who is looked down upon by the plantation farmers of the region. Also sent to John is Malinda (Brittany A. Davis), Hannah’s frenemy, but the two women are sold off as John faces financial ruin during the Civil War — separating Hannah from Isaiah, her infant son, from her time with Moses.

Malinda and Hannah end up on a cotton plantation where they meet Henry (LaVane Harrington), a fellow field slave. The three of them set off after the war’s end to find those they’ve lost.

Torn Asunder has several very well-written scenes, and Davis’ Malinda and Harrington’s Henry showcase two complex and deeply human characters. However, most of the play is more melodrama than drama, not helped by keeping the other main characters as types rather than people — Hannah, the naive dreamer; Moses, the stoic strongman; John, the villainous businessman.

The script seems to have defeated director Lisa Strum as well as actors Green, Makropoulous, and Roberts, as did the three-quarter round stage, with too much of the action staged facing front as if on a standard proscenium stage.

Luna Stage is to be commended, not just for producing Torn Asunder, but for the lobby exhibit displaying actual advertisements from former slaves seeking information about their split families. Unfortunately, I think a better play could have brought the stories behind these advertisements to life rather than creating a fictionalized story about the fate of one post-Civil War family. However, if this aspect of Reconstruction life in the United States piques your interest, then you should make the trip to West Orange to see Torn Asunder.

Torn Asunder is presented by Luna Stage in West Orange through February 26th.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to lunastage.org

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.