Review: In ‘American Rot,’ the Painful Legacy of the Dred Scott Case

In a greasy spoon just off the New Jersey Turnpike, two men sit down for coffee. One, Walter Scott (Count Stovall), is a descendant of Dred Scott, and the other, Jim Taney (John L. Payne), is a great-great nephew of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who, in 1857, wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott decision, which declared that Black people could never be citizens.

Jim requested this meeting with Walter in hopes of apologizing for “arguably the worst decision in Supreme Court history.” As a premise for a story, one could scarcely ask for richer material. But something was lost in the execution of “American Rot,” a flat-footed play by Kate Taney Billingsley, who is an actual descendant of the former chief justice.

That this La MaMa production, directed by Estelle Parsons, is based on Billingsley’s fleet audio play, starring Sam Waterston and John Douglas Thompson, is especially puzzling. In just 30 minutes, that audio production, titled “A Man of His Time,” effectively dramatized two descendants of historic figures locking horns, interrogating their own biases and seeking middle ground.

In expanding the story for the version now running at the Ellen Stewart Theater, Billingsley added 12 supporting characters, most of whom make up Black and white choruses, representing the woke commentariat and unreconstructed racists. Stationed in segregated sections of Christina Weppner’s barely-there diner, the two factions are served by an insufferable waitress (Suzanne DiDonna), who has placed a feather in her hair after snatching it from a Native American man in the opening sequence. She then proceeds to toss off white nationalist comments with alarming frequency, and is eager for something called “the Appropriation Festival,” which promises “feathers, fringe, fentanyl!”

Run, Walter, run! Yet Walter and Jim stay put, seemingly unbothered — unlikely for a Black customer or a white man who “preaches equal rights.”

“American Rot” is tonally dissonant in other ways, too. Though the historic forefathers sit onstage — Dred Scott (Leland Gantt) is upstage on a stool and a cadaverous Roger Taney (Timothy Doyle) is situated downstage — they are mostly quiet throughout the show. Occasionally they break the space-time continuum — theater’s fifth wall — to menace their descendants or buffalo them into honoring their legacies. Yet the moral seriousness of the descendants’ conversations with each other and their ancestors is too often undercut by silliness, including burlesque skits. At one point, the white chorus sings a peppy number called “The Land of the Oblivious,” with lyrics like “We like to deny what’s really going on/Throughout this country and way beyond!/Social media is where we belong!”

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