The Long Rail North is a play that premiered at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity this past week in New York City. It was written by Michael Hagins, and directed by Emily DeSena. The play stars Xavier Rodney, Morgan Patton, Michael Rehse, Natalie Ann Johnson, and Sam Lopresti. The play is set during the Civil War, and is about the relationship between an escaped black slave/AWOL Union soldier and a white daughter of a plantation owner, and their struggle to survive while travelling North as stowaways on a train.
Thomas (Rodney) is an escaped black slave who also left his regiment in the Union army due to finding that the North’s attitudes towards black people weren’t any better than the South’s attitudes. The South’s attitudes are more blatant and violent, whereas the North’s attitudes are more subtly insulting and condescending. He has rescued a 12-year old white girl named Molly (Patton) from the burning of her family plantation, in which her family and slaves were killed in the ambush, and is trying his best to be patience with her ingrained racist attitudes, all of which she had inherited from her father. Rodney commands the scenes with an intelligence that makes Thomas the smartest person in the room, on his own journey and trying to manage as a drifter and being split between allegiances and not belonging anywhere.
Molly frequently begins her sentences with “My daddy says that . . .” and often uses the n-word to address Thomas because she doesn’t know any better about addressing black people by their given names. Patton excels at playing a scared and confused young girl who doesn’t know what to think when her racist attitudes conflict with Thomas’s gentle actions, contradicting her father’s ideas about black people. While Molly needs Thomas a lot more than he needs her, he has dedicated himself to getting Molly to safety by hitching a ride on a train car going North, the full reason for it being revealed in the third act.
Along the way, they encounter a drifter/train robber named Cassie (Johnson), known as a fugitive by the name of “Coal Car” Cassie. Johnson delivers a fun performance full of charisma and adventurous spirit. Cassie stands up against the racist attitudes of the day, both out of kinship with black people and out of having nothing left to lose as a disenfranchised white woman.
The three stowaways are being targeted by both Union and Confederate soldiers, played with sinister relish by Sam Lopresti and Michael Rehse. They are both predators, not only looking to capture Thomas, but also to capture the child Molly as a “traitor” and to hang Cassie for her crimes.
The play is heavy subject matter, and given the heightened recent media coverage of race relations and racially-motivated violence, it is a perceptive drama, though it was written nearly two years ago.
DeSena’s direction and Hagins’ writing allows for the scenes to unfold naturally and deliver introspective character development without rushed exposition or filler moments. The five-person cast gives captivating performances that deliver the heaviness of the situations at hand, and transport the audience to an ugly time in history that has reared its head since then in many different forms.
The play will run through July 11th in the Planet Connections festival at the Paradise Factory.