Black Playwrights Look at Slavery in New Theater Series





Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has inspired an explosion of books, television documentaries and movies, such as Robert Redford’s upcoming The Conspirator, about the people who murdered Abraham Lincoln.  Why not a theater series about slavery, the issue that caused the war, and a series written from the African American point of view?

That’s the idea of Judy Tate and Godfrey Simmons, writers who teamed up to produce The American Slavery Project, a series of new play readings to be held throughout the New York area starting tonight and continuing until June.  The plays do not focus only on the Civil War.  They range from an 1843 drama about a man working in the Underground Railroad to spirit runaway slaves out of the country to Liberia to a play about the 1876 reunion of a slave couple twelve years after their separation by their owner in the war, and the problems they face from missed years and new lovers.

The theater project is sponsored by 651 Theater Group and the CAP 21 Theater.  The idea of the plays, according to co-artistic director Keith Josef Adkins (Jason Holtham is the co-artistic director) is to give audiences another look at the history of slavery and the Civil War era.

“Americans have always had a monolithic look at slavery, and in these plays they can see that there were many different stories within the slavery story.  We hope to shed a lot of new light on slavery and give people a better understanding of history,” Adkins said.

They applaud the producers of plays about slavery, such as The Whipping Man at City Center, which earned glowing reviews, and A Free Man of Color, that just closed at Lincoln Center.  Those plays were written by white authors.

“Black authors are needed to tell the story of slavery, too, and from their own distinctive point of view.  That’s the only way people can see slavery in a more complete way,” said Adkins.

Adkins and Tate are friends and one night early in the winter began a lengthy discussion about the need for slavery plays by African Americans connected to the 150th anniversary of the war.  “Then we talked to other people about it and we had scripts coming in.  Then we got a sponsor.  Then we got a producer and then theaters.  It seemed like everybody saw the goal—better history—and joined in.”

The plays are a welcome chapter to the history of the Civil War.  They start tonight with Ms. Tate’s Fast Blood, set in 1845.  It is the story of a slave couple that comes upon the body of a man hanging from a tree and how the discovery affects their lives.  It will be staged at the CAP 21 theater space, 18 W. 18th St., in New York.

The second drama, by Zakiyyah Alexander, is Sweet Maladies, the story of three freed slave girls who continue to live in the old plantation house and what their lives are like two years after the war end.  It will be staged at the Mark Morris Dance Center at 3 Lafayette St., Brooklyn.

The third play is Living in the Wind by Michael Bradford.  It is the story of a couple separated by their master on their wedding day and their reunion more than twelve years later.  Both have had full lives and are involved with other people when they meet again. The play will be staged at the Drilling Company, 236 W. 78th St., New York.

The fourth play is Voices from Harper’s Ferry, by Dominic Taylor, about the five black men who fought with John Brown to capture Harper’s Ferry but failed.  It will be staged June 6 at the Audubon Ballroom, 3940 Broadway, between 165th and 166th St.  The final play is Keith Adkins Safe House, about the Underground Railroad, that will also be presented at the Audubon Ballroom, on June 15.

Many of the plays are based on the history of the playwright’s family. Adkins’ play about Kentucky in 1843 came out of his study of his family’s letters.  His ancestors were free people of color living in Kentucky in the 1830s and 1840s.  He read all of their letters, including accounts of having to go to court to prove they were free just to be able to travel to Ohio.  In the letters he found a note from a woman living in Liberia who thanked his family for getting her there.  “There was the idea,” said Adkins.  “We think of the Underground Railroad moving people to Canada, but few know that many people went to Liberia, too.”

The plays, like all theatrical works, stress humanity.  “My play is about a couple who found a man hanging from a tree, barely alive, and befriended him.  The whole story is about the friendship that developed between complete strangers,” Tate said. “All of the plays stress the human condition and help fill in some missing pieces in the slavery saga.”

The playwrights are hoping that people learn a lot of history from the project. “Example: in the 1870s men used to walk through counties with thick books to write down the names of former slave families and their addresses and go from town to town and tell others former slaves where their family and friends were.  I never knew that, but I found it out from Michael Bradford’s play.  So people in our theaters are going to learn a lot,” Tate said.

There is a hope, too, the playwrights said, that people who see the dramas will realize that they could take another look at their own heritage.  “Perhaps we will inspire those in the audience to research their own families to find out what happened to them long ago,” said Adkins.  “We often find out that the story we thought was true was not. Maybe we can help others discover new things about their lives, too.”

One thing is for sure—people who go to these plays will learn a lot about history.

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