Nikkole Salter’s 2018 play “Torn Asunder” begins in 1859, with the Civil War still a couple of years away. A Maryland plantation owner, known as Master James, is officiating the wedding of two of his slaves, and is reciting the vows. He asks Hannah, who is marrying Moses, to pledge to remain true “as long as you both shall live, or it’s the pleasure of your owner to separate you.”
Even though we are aware of the horrors of slavery, it is a shock to hear lines like this delivered so casually and matter-of-factly, in what is otherwise a happy scene. And there are bigger shocks to come in the play, which is currently being presented by Luna Stage in West Orange. A brutal, horrifying beating is shown. And, as the wedding scene and the title of the play itself foreshadow, the hopeful and resilient Hannah (played by Kara Green) and the brave and resourceful Moses (played by David Roberts) are torn asunder: After Hannah balks at taking their chances on fleeing via an illegal “passage” to the North that Moses has arranged, they are separated from each other, and from their infant child, without a second thought or an ounce of regret by their owner.
Hannah and Moses both survive the Civil War years, though, and afterwards, as a free man and woman, they search for each other, and for their child. In separate story lines, Salter — whose has written several works previously presented at Luna Stage (“Indian Head,” “Carnaval,” “Lines in the Dust”) — shows them starting new lives after the war: Moses on his own, in Canada, where he works as a blacksmith, and Hannah back in the States with another ex-slave, Malinda (Brittany Davis), whom she has had problems with in the past, but with whom she develops a sisterly bond.
And when another ex-slave, the good-natured Henry (LeVane Harrington), expresses his romantic interest in Hannah, she has to decide whether to start a new family with him, or keep waiting for a possible reunion with Moses.
Master James (Mark Hofmaier, who also plays several other memorable characters) shows some signs of decency, though his unquestioning acceptance of the inhumane practices of slave-owning makes him despicable. His son-in-law, Master John (Steven Makropoulos), is more of a straightforward villain, viciously self-serving and, after times become hard for him during the war years, pathetic.
“Torn Asunder” was partially inspired by Heather Andrea Williams’ 2012 book “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery,” and its stories about how ex-slaves desperately took out ads in newspaper in the hopes of finding separated family members. When Hannah does this — and keeps doing it over and over, with no response — Henry (who has taken out ads looking for his relatives, too) argues that it’s too expensive, and too much of a long shot to continue.
“But what if this is the week he’s looking and I ain’t got no ads,” says Hannah. “I got to keep trying.”
Lisa Strum directs, with rustic sets (by Christopher and Justin Swader) and simple, earth-toned costumes (by Deborah Caney) that create a believable 19th century vibe. Recordings of classic folk and gospel songs — mournful at times, stirring at others — are sometimes heard, and add to the play’s emotional undercurrent.
Not that that’s really necessary. The intensity of the acting (especially Green’s portrayal of Hannah) gives Salter’s heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story all the firepower it needs.
Luna Stage in West Orange will present “Torn Asunder” through Feb. 26. And March 30-April 23, Luna Stage will present “The Underground History Project,” Part 1 of a five-year series of site-specific performances based on Underground Railroad history in Essex County. Visit lunastage.org.
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