top of page

Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of ‘Rastus and Hattie” delves into uncharted territory

Let us pretend that part of our DNA contains strings of memory of past generational experiences both good and bad. This could possibly explain deja vu. Imagine that you are a black scientist with a PhD who after years of research with lab rats isolates this gene string. You now have the power to totally eliminate residual DNA memories of countless generations in both the black and white population so that the new generation would come with a clean slate. What would you do?

This is the pearl in the oyster of Lisa Langford’s Rastus and Hattie now on stage in the Gordon Square Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Needra (Nicole Sumlin*) is the PhD researcher and new mother who has discovered a breakthrough in the genetic sciences. Her paper has been rejected by her Midwest college Dean because he feels that the ending paragraph is “too racist.” The young scientist is unperturbed as she has accepted a Fellowship at a university in Alabama.

Later, Needra and her husband, Malik (Ananias J. Dixon*) meet with her white friend from college days, Marlene (Rachel Lee Kolis) and her husband, David (Adam Seeholzer). Needra has picked the couple to be the God Parents of their new daughter, but in name only. The white couple is informed that any raising of the infant will be done by the black community in case of a total family tragedy.

During the visit Marlene introduces Rastus (Darius J. Stubbs) and Hatti (Jeannine Gaskin) who are two animatronic robots that David inherited from his late uncle. The pair had been a part of a canceled General Electric project in the 30s that the uncle had worked on. He then labored the rest of his life perfecting the robots to be able to “think” through various educational actions and a self loading data program. The problem for Needra and Malik is that the two machines look and act like pre-civil war slaves with Marlene especially ordering them around. Needra ends up stealing the robots and sneaks them onto the rented moving truck bound for their new home.

As they are driving south, Malik tries to calm Needra’s fears about being black and moving to the deep south, having been raised there as a child. Hearing a noise in the back, Malik pulls over and discovers the two purloined robots who then join the couple in the cab of the truck. As they drive off, Needra and Malik argue about the mechanical pair but finally make peace and come to terms as to what to do with them.

As they come to the state border Malik convinces Needra to follow an old family tradition of raising their arms and feet as they cross the border. They do and are immediately propelled into a time shift as free blacks in the Alabama woods in 1870. Marlene and David who are following in order to retrieve their property cross the border and are also time shifted to the same era as white plantation owners in the nearby town.

The simple set that consists of two columns and a wooden framed area between is greatly enhanced by the use of T. Paul Lowry’s projection designs. He creates a dean’s office, laboratory, apartment, empty apartment, driving scenes, woods and town through the use of very convincing video overlays. Sound was a bit of a problem due to the stage design making it difficult to hear all of the lines. Better projection from the actors or some wireless mics could have helped. Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design worked well in coordination with the videos and the costuming by Kerry Patterson is perfect, especially with the changeovers.

The cast is very well suited for their rolls. Nicole Sumlin and Ananias J. Dixon portray a very convincing couple with all the proper dynamics of love and argument nicely balanced out. Rachel Lee Kolis and Adam Seeholzer are perfect as the myopic whites who have no clue what all the fuss is about. Darius J. Stubbs and Jeannine Gaskin steal the show in their nearly human forms with just enough robotics to keep us on edge. Although there is some adult language, the show should be suitable for older children.

If we truly are the culmination of past generational experiences, will erasing these deeply rooted horrors help us or hinder us? If given the choice would you allow yourself to be genetically altered in order to assure that future generations would be baggage free? These questions and more are to be up for consideration. See this show for the “think factor.”

Rastus and Hattie runs through October 26, 2019 in the Gordon Square Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio. For Tickets and information go to or call (216) 631-2727.

  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

bottom of page