The program featured excerpts from The Slave Narrative Project1 in the late 1930's, and was actually "staged" on Horton Grove Plantation—the plantation holdings of the Bennehan-Cameron families were among the largest in pre-Civil War North Carolina, and among the largest of the entire South. By 1860, the family owned almost 30,000 acres and nearly 900 slaves—in Durham, NC.
After being encouraged to put on some bug spray, more for ticks than mosquitoes, our group of 30 or 40 were led to the "set" of the first scene of the five-acts, which was held in one of the two-story buildings that housed four slave families in its day.
We crowded in, with some people sitting on the floor and some standing, facing an old lady sitting in a rocking chair holding some weaving project she was presumably working on before she fell asleep. Once we settled in, she woke up, and told her story of living on a plantation, and of her "massa' and her "missus."
For the second act, we moved into a second room, where a man was sitting on a chair in front of the room, who was a preacher as well as being a slave, and he told his story.
For the third act, we were stopped just as soon as we exited the housing area, and a woman told us her story from the front steps. I found this story to be the most riveting and compelling, partly because the first two stories had made it sound like it was bad, but not all that bad being a slave.
Well, this slave's story, juxtaposed to the previous two, packed a powerful punch to the gut.
The fourth "act" was "in motion," which is to say that our group walked along a lantern-lit (it was dark, as we'd gone to the 9pm performance) path, and on the way we "happened upon" another slave, who told us his story as we inched our way toward the "Great Barn," the last building on the property—and it was huge—built completely from slave labor.
Once in the barn, for a final act, we heard three more stories, one of which focused on the (completely valid) rage of the slaves against white people in the aftermath of Emancipation and to the person who had come to interview him for his story. Intense.
My thoughts and observations:
- It's hard to capture and articulate the effect of seeing this play in the setting in which it was staged—that is, on a plantation that once actually housed slaves.
- I loved that, of the 2,300 narratives the playwrights had to chose from, the seven stories they chose to tell were all from slaves who were enslaved on plantations in North Carolina.
- I learned that the Emancipation Declaration was important, of course, but it really had very little effect on the slaves until at least two years afterwards. Because, although they were free to go, to where? And to what end? They had no place to live. No education. No one would hire them.
- Some slaves just finished out their lives living on the plantations on which they were previously enslaved.
- I'd never heard of Bare Theatre, which is the theater group who produced this show. They are called "bare" because they use very little props, even when they are staging a play in a theater, and they mostly do Shakespeare.
- When it was over, the line, "You are free to go," had an exceptionally precious ring to it.
In conclusion, I found this performance fascinating, as well as educational, and I would highly recommend it if they stage it again next year.
1Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.
These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.
This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress and includes more than 200 photographs from the Prints and Photographs Division that are now made available to the public for the first time. Born in Slavery was made possible by a major gift from the Citigroup Foundation.