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A CurtainUp Review
Lost on the Natchez Trace


Man is in a heap of trouble when he starts talking to himself. Who do I conjure up but the last slave I sold. —Malcolm, the injured white slave auctioneer.

If you want the heavenly light to guide you home, you want night to become day, darkness to turn to light, tell me what you done with Mary. —Tom, slave.
Leopold Lowe as a runaway slave and Peter Brouwer as a slave auctioneer
Photo: Kim T. Sharp.
Today tourists enjoy driving along the 444-mile scenic Natchez Trace Parkway where they can go horseback riding, camping and hiking. In 1825, however, the Natchez Trace was no vacation paradise. It was a swamp tangled with vines, animal bones and rotted trees. In Jan Buttram’s Lost On the Natchez Trace, slave auctioneer Malcolm Jeters (Peter Brower) was severely injured when he fell from his mule and got trapped in mire of quicksand and tree branches. He is desperate, hungry, unable to walk, and weak. Ironically, his only hope lies in the sudden appearance of a runaway slave, Tom (Leopold Lowe).

In this two-hander at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex’s Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, Tom and Malcolm begin a cat-and-mouse game of which one can dictate the terms of survival. Involved in these negotiations are deep-rooted psychological links and racial separations, an economic divide, and the grip of personal anguish. Malcolm offers to arrange Tom’s freedom if he can get him home to his family and a doctor. Tom reminds the frustrated old auctioneer that his leg is badly injured and they are far from the river or trail

From the start, it is easy to see that the playing field is not quite level. As a white man, Malcolm would normally hold considerable power, but now he can hardly stand and is incapable of walking or defending himself from the snakes and bobcats. Tom, a black field hand alone in this stretch from Nashville to lower Mississippi, is young and strong. He has been roaming in this morass for a week, searching for his wife and baby after escaping his new owner. Performed with strength and grace by Leopold Lowe (Award Winner for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Classical Theatre of Harlem), Tom hunches in the trees, twisting and leaping easily around Malcolm.

Peter Browner ( My Deah, Glory Girls ), who is also a part-time auctioneer, is authoritative as Malcolm, who automatically asserts his rights as a white man, ordering Tom to help him out of the mire and get him home. “Looky here, I’m not taking anymore sass. Get to the road, bring back some help. I don’t care who it is, even the law. Find me a wagon and a mule! Fetch me a dry, strong stick to prop me up!” Tom calmly reminds Malcolm, “You and me need to bargain.”

Directed with focus by Kate Bushmann, the bickering between the two men moves cagily. The play dramatically shifts in tone after Tom demands to hear who bought his wife and baby at last week’s auction. After Malcolm’s confrontational denials that he was ever the slave auctioneer and followed by whining explanations, the truth emerges, heart-rending details of what happened and who is to blame. Confessions by both Malcolm and Tom are muddled with the torture of sin and blame. The need for atonement and the voices of the dead haunt them. It is the specter of Tom’s forgiveness that finally comforts Malcolm’s last moments.

Scenic designer Andrew Lu created a dark, dank set with heavy ropes twisted into vines and branches, weaving around and above the small stage. Lighting by Travis McHale further evoked the dim marsh light and David Margolin Lawson added faint sounds of wetland life and sudden blasts warning of an approaching storm. Costume designers Catherine Siracusa and Sidney Levitt put Tom into a light cotton top and pants well-worn from field labor. Malcolm is wearing his once white shirt and suit, now tattered and soiled.

Playwright and Abingdon Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Jan Buttram ( Phantom Killer ), credits Peter Brower for originating the idea of Lost On the Natchez Trace. After Buttram wrote a first draft, she and Brower joined in examining the anguish of human bondage and people’s right to be free. The result is a powerful, carefully-crafted play igniting a debate on what it takes to be a moral person and how far we would go for those values.

Lost on the Natchez Trace by Jan Buttram
Directed by Kate Bushmann
Cast: Peter Brouwer, Leopold Lowe
Set Design: Andrew Lu
Costume Design: Catherine Siracusa and Sidney Levitt
Lighting Design: Travis McHale
Sound Design: David Margolin Lawson
Production Stage Manager : Genevieve Ortiz
Running Time: 90 minutes. No intermission.
Theatre: Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th St.. (212) 868-2055 or
Tickets: $25.
Performances: Wed..Thurs. at 7 PM; Fri., Sat. at 8 PM; with 2 PM matinees on Saturdays and Sundays
From 2/03/12; opening 2/12/12; closing 2/26/12. Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 2/10/12
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