2013 certainly has been a watershed year for this little theatre company that could. Four different productions took us from Common Ground to Historic Stagville to the amphitheatre at Raleigh Little Theatre. We collaborated with amazing circus artists from Cirque de Vol Studios and brilliant musicians brought to us by PineCone.
Here’s a look back…
February: WINTER ACTS 2013
Our fourth collection of short works showcased a mix of circus acts and dark theatre, with two original new plays and one piece from the 1960’s. The incredible talent from Cirque de Vol opened the show, featuring a different act each night. The acts included dazzling hoop work by Paige LaWall (“Papyrus”), acrobatics from Liz Bliss and Jewels, sword dancing from Raleigh’s own bearded lady, “Gatita,” and an eye popping juggling act from Adam Dipert. This began the collaborative work that would be featured in The Comedy of Errors in May.
- Mary Forester and Loren Armitage in “Fun House,” part of Winter Acts 2013. Photo by G. Todd Buker.
The first play up was “The Hitler Youth Knife,” written by former Rogue Company member R. Alex Davis. Matt Fields and Justin Smith played college roommates discussing the betrayal of a mutual love – and its consequences. Heather Strickland directed “Fun House” by Tarboro playwright Jordan Carlson. Mary Forester and Jeff Buckner explored a surreal dark world inhabited by a mysterious Loren Armitage, who brought back a final memory. Closing out the night was “The Tape Recorder” from English-born playwright Pat Flower. The piece, which was featured in the first color broadcast on the BBC, found an innocent young woman (played by Maegan Mercer-Bourne) taking dictation from author Loren Armitage’s reel-to-reel tape recorder – only to discover a diabolical plan waiting for her.
May: The Comedy of Errors
- The set of “The Comedy of Errors” at Stephenson Amphitheatre at Raleigh Little Theatre. Photo by Paul Cory.
Our first production in the Stephenson Amphitheatre had us going big. Working with the incredible Sara Phoenix and Cirque de Vol studios, the play was set in an antique circus environment, complete with “nimble jugglers,” belly dancers, acrobats, and aerial artists who performed high above the stage on the huge aerial silk and trapeze rig we constructed and dismantled every night. Pyrotechnics and fire spinning/juggling lit up the nights, and we even made a couple of new friends with the albino pythons that took the stage with us!
I’m proud of every production we take on, but I will always have a special fondness for this one. The company tackled a lot and conquered several fears along the way – of heights, fire, blades, snakes – and got the audiences rolling with laughter along the way at one of William Shakespeare’s earlier works.
- Mora Harris, Rebecca Blum, Brian Fisher and Chuck Keith in “The Comedy of Errors.” Photo by Paul Cory.
The Comedy of Errors brought in audiences numbering almost 2,000 over four evenings. Our previously most-attended production, Much Ado About Nothing (2011), saw about 480 over the course of ten performances. Getting this many people out to see one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays is an achievement in itself, and one I hope all involved are very proud of.
June: Let Them Be Heard returns to Historic Stagville
Hot on the heels of Errors was the remount of our 2012 original production based on North Carolina slave narratives. This time, however, the cast powered through three times as many performances, completing 11 shows in all.
The show had already made INDYweek’s “Best of Triangle Theatre” list for 2012 in the categories of Best Ensemble, Best Direction, Best Production, and Special Achievement in the Humanities. 2013 brought new honors, including a 5-star review of the show, and additional recognition for Best Costumes in the 2013 “Best of” list (congratulations to David Serxner and Phillip B. Smith for that honor!).
Barbette, Phillip, Kyma, Warren, Gil (the new kid!) and Justin even deeper into the characters that gave us these important narratives, and they continue to make this show an overwhelming success.
August: As You Like It
We opened our ninth – yes, ninth – full season with one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. Heather directed her personal favorite Shakespeare play on the very stage on which she played Rosalind back in 2005 – right before Bare Theatre returned to Triangle stages. This time we worked with PineCone: The Piedmont Council for Traditional Music, who taught us a lot about live music and bluegrass, and introduced us to some truly excellent musicians.
We knew we were in luck when The Zinc Kings contacted us about doing the show. Not only did they rehearse and play live throughout the performances – they wrote all original music for Shakespeare’s songs and recorded a new album! Mark, Christen, and Dan were so much fun to work with, and we hope we cross artistic paths with them again some day. Incidentally, they picked up a “Best of” honor from INDYweek in the category of Best Original Music!
I have to say that for me personally, this was one of the most fun shows we’ve ever done. The cast was so positive and the energy was absolutely contagious. This production, like Errors, brought in almost 2,000 audience and we couldn’t be more pleased to see such enthusiasm for these plays.
September: SPARKcon 2013
Our third appearance at “the creative explosion of the South” was a bit different this year. Since we were on early break and were not promoting any show specifically, we decided to have a dance party in the street. Actors from at least nine different productions over the past nine years dressed up as their favorite characters and danced like no one was watching. Not only were people watching, but many of them joined in with us! If you missed it, the video is here.
November: Company Meeting
- Heather J. Strickland being distracted from directing “Fun House.” Photos by G. Todd Buker.
The first company-wide meeting was held on Nov. 7, and we shared some sad news. Heather J. Strickland, who had served as Managing Director from 2005 – 2009 and had been serving as Artistic Director ever since, had decided to step out of that role to give her growing family more of her time and energy, and she had just started a new day job as well.
Though I will really miss having Heather in a strategic and artistic decision-making role, I am very pleased that she will continue to be an important member of the company, acting and doing fight choreography in our upcoming Cymbeline, and working on fights in Two Noble Kinsmen.
A great deal of positive ideas came out of this meeting, which was just a first step as we chart new territory with Bare Theatre. We will continue to seek input from company members moving forward, and we will always strive to make this company a safe, fun, and welcoming environment for artists to create and explore.
What a year. As amazing as 2013 was, 2014 looks to go even further, with Let Them Be Heard returning to Stagville in winter before touring to The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and later in the year to Hope Plantation and Somerset Place near the NC coast. Veteran director, actor, and writer Laura Bess Jernigan – who was in the very first Bare Theatre production – directs Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at the Cordoba Arts Center at Golden Belt in Durham. We close out Season IX with Two Noble Kinsmen: Fire & Shadows, which will reunite us with Cirque de Vol performers in the amphitheatre at Raleigh Little Theatre.
More great things to come! We hope you will be there with us. Happy New Year!
This is somewhat of a detour, but it’ll be a fun one…
William Shakespeare probably never actually set foot in many of the locations where his plays are set. Neither did most of his audience. People of that time didn’t have access to photos or video, and they may not have even seen illustrations or paintings of them. They simply wouldn’t have much idea what those settings were like because there was no way for them to know.
Even though he probably had not explored the Mediterranean, Shakespeare seems to have been fascinated with it. Many of his plays are set in Italy or Greece. The Comedy of Errors takes place entirely within the city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey.
I won’t get into ALL the details, but this ancient city has a fascinating history. The area was inhabited as far back as the 10th century BC, during the Neolithic Age. It was colonized by Ionian migrants around the 10th century BC, and during the Bronze Age, the settlement was known as Abasa. According to legend, an Athenian prince named Androklos founded the city at the site where the oracle of Delphi prophesied he would.
Ephesus became the site of the Greek Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was at the time said by some to be the largest structure in the world, and it was destroyed and rebuilt three times before its final destruction in the third century AD.
It may be worth noting that Artemis was regarded as the goddess of childbirth and virginity – two topics that play into Errors. Artemis was also the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, the wilderness, and the moon. The many-breasted figurines and sculptures of Artemis represent fertility.
During the Archaic Period (750-460 BC), Ephesus was conquered, razed, rebuilt, and ruled by a series of tyrants. This era ended with the city under the rule of the Persians. In 498 BC, the Ionians rose up in revolt against their Persian governors for continuously raising taxes, which set off the Greco-Persian Wars. After many years of fighting they were able to drive the Persians out.
In 356 BC, the Temple of Artemis was burned down, according to local lore, by a lunatic named Herostratus. Shortly thereafter, Alexander the Great arrived in triumph from the war against the Persians. He offered to rebuild the temple with his own money, but the Ephesians refused, saying it would be unseemly for one god to build a temple to another.
When the Romans took over, they were not popular in this traditionally Greek city. Ephesus was one among many cities involved in the Asiatic Vespers in 88 BC, in which some 80,000 Romans and Roman sympathizers were murdered.
Emperor Augustus made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia in 27 BC, and the city prospered. Its population swelled to almost half a million, and Ephesus was said by Strabo to be second in size and import only to the city of Rome. The huge Library of Celsus was built during this time, as well as public bath complexes and the most advanced aqueduct of its time.
A great amphitheater simply known as The Theater was constructed. With a seating capacity of about 25,000, this theater is the largest outdoor theater known in the ancient world. Originally used only for plays, its stage eventually showed gladiatorial combats, and there is now archaeological evidence of a gladiators’ graveyard near the site.
The city remained important during the Byzantine era, but began a long, slow decline after being sacked by the Goths in 263 AD. By the time the Turks conquered in 1090, Ephesus was little more than a village. The Byzantines resumed control for a little over two centuries, but the Turks took it back in the early 1300’s. The town briefly flourished under these newest rulers, but then was taken over by the Anatolian Beys.
By Shakespeare’s time, Ephesus had lost all of its former glory and was completely abandoned. Its Roman ruins – the largest collection in the eastern Mediterranean – are now part of the modern town of Selçuk, Turkey.
2012 was a challenging year in many ways for a lot of people. The economy was still a bit shaky and we all endured a grueling election cycle. There were challenges for us in Bare Theatre – the most notable being the unfortunate closure of Raleigh Ensemble Players, which had seemed to be the perfect new home for us in Raleigh after Much Ado About Nothing.
It’s always interesting to me to look back at what we’ve done and where we’ve been. 2012 brought a lot of firsts for us, and it saw our “little company that could” transitioning into a more established company here in Raleigh and in the Triangle as a whole.
Here’s a brief look back:
February. Winter One-Acts: One Night of Absolute Dismay
February held our third collection of one-acts, a mix of short plays from playwrights new and well-established. We presented new works by Lucius Robinson, Rajeev Rajendran, Ben Ferber, Donnie McEwan, and Mora Harris, as well as a favorite by Christopher Durang.
We premiered three installments of “Hot Greek Porn,” a mashup of Greek tragedy, the European debt crisis, and well…porn. We bloodied the stage with “Everything Seems So Plausible at 1 A.M.,” and explored a couple’s faith being tested by a homeless person. The show wrapped up with “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls,” a twisted retelling of Tennessee Williams’ classic, The Glass Menagerie.
Notable firsts included Jason Bailey’s first time directing on stage and Olivia Griego’s first time directing with Bare!
May. We had so much fun with “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls” in Absolute Dismay that we decided to mount the entire collection from which it came, Durang/Durang. That show, originally scheduled for May, had to be postponed because of the closure of REP.
We had already rehearsed well over a month by the time we got the sad news, so rather than cancel the show entirely we moved it to July, thus canceling our summer youth conservatory, Rogue Company.
June. Let Them Be Heard
Our first location-based production, Let Them Be Heard, took place at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC. The seven monologues taken from the Slave Narrative Project were staged in actual slave quarters and a hand-built mule barn at the site.
Let Them Be Heard was a powerful experience for us. The fact that the narratives came from men and women who lived in Raleigh and Durham and grew up as slaves made already compelling stories even more meaningful.
Among many firsts with this show was our first Kickstarter campaign, which successfully raised over $1,250 to cover the costs of the production. This in turn helped us donate 100% of ticket sales – over $1,800 – to Historic Stagville to support their mission of historic preservation.
It was also our first appearance on WUNC 91.5 FM’s The State of Things with Frank Stasio. It was also our first (of hopefully many more) production that was audio recorded and broadcast with the help of Kurt Benrud and Triangle Radio Reading Service.
Additionally, the sold-out show was recognized by Byron Woods and The Independent Weekly as among the best of 2012’s Triangle Theater, receiving recognition for best achievements in ensemble, directing, production, and a special achievement in the humanities.
July saw Durang/Durang finally get its run (with a few new cast members), and it was a blast. Olivia was a fantastic director, and we even got her husband Drew onstage with us!
Not only did this show have the honor of being our first-ever production at Burning Coal’s Murphey School, it was also the second-highest grossing show in Bare Theatre history (after our 2011 run of Much Ado About Nothing).
September. SPARKcon 2012
SPARKcon 2012 was Bare’s second appearance at the huge four-day creative explosion in downtown Raleigh. TheatreSPARK wanted to go bigger and better, so local theatre companies took to the streets with an interactive scavenger hunt. With our upcoming clown-centric show, The Leader, rapidly approaching it was time to send in the clowns.
October/November. The Leader
The Leader involved several firsts. Using Eugene Ionesco’s short 1953 play by the same name as a jumping-off point, we explored a creative process unlike our typical process. The devised short plays and sketches that filled out the show were created by the ensemble, with several pieces written by Chuck Keith, and Todd Buker.
Our pals, The Nickel Shakespeare Girls, came to participate in our clown workshops, and we took what we learned out onto the streets of downtown Raleigh to field test it. The Leader was our first production in an art gallery, too – at the wonderful Visual Art Exchange. We also got to visit Frank Stasio at The State of Things again to talk a little about political theatre!
What a year. There were so many unforgettable moments on stage and back stage. We had the pleasure of working with a ton of great new actors, and trying new things with old friends.
Here’s to 2013, which we’ll discuss more on the next post! Wait ’til you hear what’s in store!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Reflections on the Age-Old Question, “What Next?” and the Troublesome Questions of Identity and Purpose That Ensue, Part 1
It has been a banner year for Bare Theatre. Almost twelve months ago we were dusting off “The Shakespeare Zone” for its Raleigh debut at SPARKcon 2011. “The Zone” is a Bare Theatre original collection of comedic sketches mashing up Shakespeare and modern TV and, despite the rains, it was a crowd pleaser. This was especially true at Raleigh Ensemble Players, where we huddled out of the cold and damp with a truly appreciative audience.
Two months later we were back onstage with a steampunk-clad version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This was a big production for us, with 24 cast members (several of whom had several costume changes); video projections that featured flying airships, fireworks, and characters appearing onscreen; a couple of company dance numbers; and a big fight sequence pitting clowns against drunks.
Much Ado was our biggest box office success since the company began, and we had a fantastic three-week run in Durham and Raleigh.
The winter brought our third annual collection of short plays, One Night of Absolute Dismay. This collection featured three originals and one parody from Christopher Durang, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls.” This was our best attended one-acts show so far.
Towards the end of spring we were gearing up for the entire collection of shorts that included “Southern Belle,” Durang’s humbly-titled Durang/Durang. The show was supposed to go up in May but had to be postponed at the last minute due to the sudden and very sad closure of Raleigh Ensemble Players’ space on Fayetteville St.
So we ended up following Absolute Dismay with an original adaptation of slave narratives from North Carolina, called Let Them Be Heard. It featured seven monologues performed by African American actors portraying people who had experienced life under slavery and survived to the Great Depression.
We staged these narratives at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC, which had been one of the largest plantations in the South. The show led four sold-out audiences on a lantern-lit tour across the plantation grounds, beginning in an original slave quarters cabin and ending in the huge Great Barn, hand-built by the slaves in 1860.
Let Them Be Heard was not only our first environmental play, but also our first Kickstarter campaign. With Kickstarter we successfully raised over $1,400 to cover production costs, which in turn enabled us to donate 100% of the ticket sales – $1,850 – to Historic Stagville, helping the Stagville Foundation preserve the important historical landmark.
Immediately after Heard, we got right back to work with Durang/Durang. We had a great opening week at Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School in Raleigh, and are finishing out the run in Durham at Common Ground Theatre.
Christopher Durang’s work has been insanely fun, especially after the tragic stories told in Let Them Be Heard. These six shorts are hilarious, ridiculous, silly and satirical, and as we always do – we have a great group of people involved. Not to mention, there are a ton of great photos of us in wigs (courtesy of the magnificent Mario Griego) on Facebook!
We’ve stretched ourselves, pushed the envelope, and had a blast in the process. Now that our eighth full season (yes, eighth full season!) has begun, we are faced with a question of identity.
We’ve done a lot of Shakespeare – almost half the canon at this point. We’ve done plays by Miller, Pinter, Stoppard and Durang. We’ve done a slew of original works from playwrights around the country. The question for me lately is: does the work define us or do we define the work?
I keep coming back to the latter answer. What makes us “Bare” is not necessarily what we do – it’s how we do it.
We are “Bare” because we tell stories with intensity and passion using little more than a room, some actors, and the text. Everything that happens between those elements is what hopefully makes our work worth watching.
It’s not an option for us to rely on production values. This limitation is actually what I find the most liberating about Bare Theatre. When you don’t have money, or set, or a ton of crew members, you have to get creative. You have to use your imagination.
We are constantly challenged by the fact that we do not have a performance space of our own. Common Ground has been a great home to us in Durham, but it has always been difficult to find suitable venues in Wake County and Raleigh.
That ongoing search has led me to a conclusion: that we embrace the challenge of finding venues that fit the pieces, and make that a central part of what we do. The experience at Stagville proved that we could create a one-of-a-kind experience with nothing more than actors, text, a location, and lanterns.
It doesn’t get any more Bare than that.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about The Next Show and Where We Go From Here…
I needed a couple weeks after LET THEM BE HEARD to let it all sink in. This was a huge experience in many ways, and I’m still wrapping my brain around what we managed to accomplish.
It was historic, for starters, and I’m not just referring to the source material. This was Bare Theatre’s first performance in a historic site, and I believe this was the first time any theatre has been done in the original slave quarters and barn at Historic Stagville.
Not only that, but we think this may have been the first theatrical adaptation of the seven monologues included in LET THEM BE HEARD. There are others from other states included in the film Unchained Memories, and there have been other theatrical adaptations elsewhere around the country, but we have not found any other record of these narratives being performed anywhere.
One of our goals was to create awareness of Historic Stagville, and I believe we succeeded. The site usually has between 300 – 350 visitors for its annual Juneteenth event, a celebration of the day the last slaves were set free. This year, that day saw 970 visitors.
Among the four audience groups we had that night, there were some 120 people in attendance, meaning we raised over $1,000 for Historic Stagville. On top of that, our 29 Kickstarter contributors donated $1,301 to Bare Theatre for the creation of LET THEM BE HEARD, so they deserve much credit and many thanks for making this possible.
The publicity the show received was fantastic. We also need to thank the Durham Herald-Sun (read the article), The State of Things and WUNC 91.5 FM (listen to our interview), as well as The Independent Weekly and Classical Voice of North Carolina (read the review).
All four performances were sold out a couple of days before the event, and we were still receiving calls and emails from folks trying to get tickets. There have been many requests from those that were not able to see it and many who did see it to bring the show back to Stagville.
These numbers are all important and a great sign of how much this show resonated with the community, but most striking to me was our audiences’ reactions. I told the cast in advance not to expect applause – not because the show did not deserve it – but because people would simply be unable to applaud at the end. After such tales of tragedy and suffering, it just didn’t feel right.
Their faces were enough, however.
I saw many people who couldn’t speak afterwards, some choked up by tears, others silently burning with a simmering anger and frustration that such things could have ever happened on these lands and in our community. That is a testament to the power of the narratives themselves, and of the incredible talent and ability that our cast displayed in order to tell those stories.
We are currently in the process of creating audio recordings of these seven narratives, with the help of Triangle Radio Reading Service, a service for the blind. The actors have adapted readily to the studio and I am blown away by the recordings so far.
It looks promising for us to return to Stagville, but as yet we do not know exactly when.
It is very important to us to keep working on this project and to continue to tell these stories. I believe we succeeded in creating a safe environment for actors and audience to come together, and to give people a chance to listen.
There will be more to come on this, I promise.
We’ve talked about some of the history and about Stagville itself. Now it’s time for a look at the characters – men and women who grew up as slaves, viewed as “property” to someone else.
Tempie is the oldest character in our collection. She was 103 years old in the late 1930’s when she was interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project. This means that she was in her 30’s during The Civil War, so she remembers slavery differently from the other characters, who were children at the time.
Tempie had a good relationship with George and Betsy Herndon, the couple that owned her, and in her interview she tells of fond memories working in a weaving room with the other slave women (and Betsy). She also recounts her marriage to Exter Durham, a slave from another plantation.
REVEREND SQUIRE DOWD
Squire Dowd was one of the very few slaves who received an education. He remembers being taught to read and write by the white children “as punishment” for the bad things he did. As an adult, he became a Baptist preacher and was fairly well-known in the Raleigh community, where he served in the ministry for 50 years.
Dowd has a self-described “conservative view” of slavery. While he seems to blame carpetbaggers and the Ku Klux Klan for much of the plight of African-Americans after the war, he also recalls several good times he had as a slave child.
Little is known of Fanny Cannady other than from her interview with the Federal Writer’s Project. Fanny and her mother seem to have been very close with her mistress, Sally Moss, but she was terrified of her master, Jordan Moss. She recounts the story of two slave brothers, Leonard and Burrus Allen, who were large strong men who were not afraid of their master. Fanny describes in detail a horrifying chain of events that begin with an off-hand comment from Leonard about Moss’s son. One of the brothers would end up killed by his master, the other whipped mercilessly.
Henry’s monologue in LET THEM BE HEARD is actually a combination of the two interviews given by Henry and his brother Clay. Both men were slaves, but on two different plantations in Raleigh. He talks about being beaten just for being black, saying “I had a whole heap of dem whuppin’s” (Clay’s line). He also recounts slave sales, including the sale of his wife after just one year of marriage.
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Andrew Boone begins his narrative by relating how the Works Progress Administration has cut him off. He says he can no longer work, that he has been squatting in tobacco barns for years, and that he has not had much food lately. Andrew’s former owner, Billy Boone, treated his slaves harshly and Andrew remarks on the fact that his master was a preacher. After slavery, Andrew moved to New York City, where he seems to have found a reasonable amount of success working for the entertainers Crawford & Banhay. While in New York, Andrew married and had children, but these successes appear to have all faded away by the time of his interview.
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Very little is known about Thomas Hall, who was 81 at the time of his interview. After beginning to give some details about his parents and owner, he seems to become more and more agitated and ends up refusing to tell the interviewer his story. He rails against the economic slavery and bigotry that continued after emancipation, and he says he hates Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln for serving their own interests rather than trying to help African-Americans.
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Dave’s narrative is actually a story about his grandparents. Dave was an excellent storyteller, and the first time I read this story it actually made me cry. It is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. Dave’s grandparents, Cleve and Lissa, lost their infant daughter (Dave’s mother) when they were purchased because their master did not want to also buy the baby and have it impede their ability to work. Some time after this, Cleve realized that the master was planning on selling Lissa. Unable to bear the loss of his wife after losing their child, Cleve decides to resist, knowing full well the consequences.
Reservations are going fast and all four shows will likely sell out. Complete details are available at www.baretheatre.org.
Also, we have a short video about the project on our Kickstarter page. Bare Theatre is donating all ticket sales to Historic Stagville, so we are asking for contributions to help us pay for the production costs.
Yesterday was a special day for us. The cast and crew of LET THEM BE HEARD took a tour of Historic Stagville. For many in the group it was their first time at the site, the remnants of a plantation that used to be one of the largest in the South.
At the start of The Civil War, Stagville covered 30,000 acres (about 47 square miles) and stretched across what is now northern Durham County. At this time there were over 900 enslaved African-Americans living and working on the plantation.
Our tour was led by my father, Gil, who is a retired high school English teacher and a docent for Historic Stagville. Originally, he was going to give the group our own tour, but at the last minute we were joined by a large group that was touring historic sites in Durham.
Gil is a natural educator, and Stagville and the history of slavery in America are subjects he is passionate about. He first led us to the Bennehan House near the visitor’s center, which was built by Richard Bennehan in 1787.
The Bennehan House is not what most people think about when they imagine a southern slaveowner’s household. It is not the vast manor of Gone With the Wind. Instead, it is a simple 2-story house not too different in outward appearance from houses of today. However, this house was typical of its time and thus was not as large and ornate as the later estates of the deep south.
More remarkable is what is inside – pieces of original furniture and even a Thomas Day dresser, a rope bed with canopy, and even exposed wall showing original mortar with visible pig’s hair in it. Walking through the small food preparation room, we could see where slaves would have served meals that had been cooked in a separate structure. In the dining room, the table was set as it would have been in the 19th century.
I noticed that Kyma seemed lost in thought, taking in these rooms. I asked what she was thinking and she said, “I can see it.” She was referring to one of the stories her character, Fanny Cannady, tells in which see saw her mother slapped for spilling some coffee as she served it to the master and his wife. Fanny did not live at Stagville, but the empty table with its china all set out gave us a clear picture of what that scene might have looked like.
The second half of the tour covered Horton Grove, where LET THEM BE HEARD will take place. Horton Grove is about a half mile away from the Bennehan House, and we had to drive to it. Horton Grove is where a large group of slaves were housed, and the buildings remain today.
We began the Horton Grove portion at the slave quarters, where the first half of LET THEM BE HEARD will be performed. To me, this is the most amazing part of the tour. First, it is remarkable that these cabins still stand – most slave quarters on plantation historic sites are long gone. This is partially a testament to Paul Cameron, the subsequent heir of the Bennehan and Cameron fortunes and the man who brought Stagville to its peak in 1860.
Cameron realized that the typical slave huts of the time were unhealthy to the workforce. Those houses tended to have dirt floors, no ventilation, and thatched roofs that leaked, creating damp, insect and varmint-ridden conditions that would alternate between freezing cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer.
Paul Cameron had these cabins built with raised floors, wood shingles, and windows, allowing better protection from the elements. While these were vast improvement over slave dwellings on other sites, they are still austere and crowded living conditions. Each building like the one pictured above housed four slave families, each with one room only, and families would usually number around 8-10 people.
Gil noted that Cameron’s improvements to the living conditions were not necessarily benevolent in nature – this was a way of safeguarding his investment, and by keeping his workforce healthy, he was able to maintain a highly productive plantation.
One of the most human and amazing sights at Stagville is the chimney on the first slave cabin. The bricks are original, and were made of North Carolina clay that would be cut into blocks and set in the sun to dry before they were fired. Occasionally the bricks would be grabbed too early, and finger imprints would be made in the still-drying clay. These imprints, and even a foot imprint can be seen today in the chimney at Horton Grove.
Inside the cabin, we were able to verify that groups slightly larger than we calculated could fit into the rooms and still give the actors room. This is great because we will be able to accommodate a few more people per group on the night of the show.
The atmosphere in that cabin is amazing. You really feel that you have been transported in time there. For me, imaging the crowded conditions with children sleeping on the wooden floors gets to me. It will make for an extremely intimate first half of the show.
Moving on, we walked down the gravel dirt road known as Jock Road to The Great Barn, where LET THEM BE HEARD will conclude. This mule barn, hand-built by slaves, was the culminating point of Paul Cameron’s dream. It is a massive structure that was constructed without mortar foundation, and it was built with shipbuilding techniques, which may help explain how the building has lasted for over 150 years.
When the folks who were touring historic sites realized they were on this tour with the cast, they asked to see a bit of the performance. Warren treated them to the beginning of Andrew Boone’s monologue when we got inside The Great Barn! Several of their group will be joining us I think for June 9th, so thanks, Warren!
The four men who will be performing in the barn will have much more room to play in, and with lantern light only, the atmosphere will be intense. I can already see the shadows flickering on the huge hand-hewn wooden beams, and I think the guys really enjoyed being able to walk that space.
Some of the cast and crew had to leave after seeing the barn, but the rest of us stayed and looked at the other slave cabins and Horton House, which was built in 1770 by a previous landowner.
The fact that these structures still stand after all this time astounds me. Driving to and from Stagville, I’ll notice old barns and wooden buildings collapsing off in the woods, and I can’t help but wonder if these were originally part of Stagville as well, lost to time and nature because they were not maintained.
That such history could be and has been lost so easily over the years is sad to me. This is why it is so important to me to tell the slave narratives and to encourage people to see Stagville. The more awareness of this resource, the more difficult it will be for state legislators to slash funding for the site.
It is my hope that LET THEM BE HEARD helps to preserve the stories and the site for many more people to see and learn from. I think cast and crew agree that this will be a truly memorable experience for us and for our audiences.