Classic American history theater for readers who are weary of The Crucible and Inherit the Wind.

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THE TRIAL OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY

In his debut play, Wheatley (A Song of Africa, 2011) illuminates the life of an African-American poet and explores both colonists’ and slaves’ desires for liberty.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), born in West Africa, was captured by slavers in 1761 and sold to Boston’s John Wheatley. The Wheatley family didn’t treat her like an ordinary slave, instead giving her an unprecedented classical education in literature; she eventually became America’s first published black poet. The playwright, who may himself be descended from the Boston family he portrays, zeroes in on the events of Nov. 4 and 5, 1772, when Phillis stood trial to prove her authorship of her poems. The first act shows the Wheatleys preparing for trial, with Phillis rehearsing lines and John and his son, Nathaniel, discussing issues such as abolition and taxation. Nathaniel is a patriot—“How can we ignore tyranny?” he demands—but John is a Loyalist. With these characters, the author offers a perfect, miniature illustration of the Colonial debates over British rule and slavery’s continuation. Meanwhile, his portrayal of Phillis comes across as simultaneously humble and erudite, as she references Shakespeare, John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Milton and Christopher Marlowe. Act 2 re-creates the trial, using characters’ actual words wherever possible. Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, the defense lawyer, frames the case idealistically: “I thought today we could perhaps take a step toward reconciliation.…The common ground I speak of lies in art, and poetry.” The prosecution asks Phillis to identify some verses and list her influences; it’s particularly interested in her metaphorical use of the word “Americus” and the phrase “fair freedom” and in whether she harbors a political agenda. Phillis admits that her position in life influences her writing but insists she was only describing the colonists’ plight. “I am what I am. I cannot be what I perceive others may want me to be,” she passionately declares. The trial’s result provides the play with a heartwarming, triumphant conclusion. The work’s prefatory materials and stage directions can seem long-winded at times, but this is a relatively minor drawback. Overall, the historical figures come to vibrant life in the author’s illustration of the primacy of freedom: “Today we have been reminded by a slave girl how precious is our liberty,” Founding Father John Hancock declares at one point.

Classic American history theater for readers who are weary of The Crucible and Inherit the Wind.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-0615645315

Page Count: 242

Publisher: The Trial of Phillis Wheatley

Review Posted Online: Dec. 17, 2014

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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