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.
I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. I went to Durham Academy in elementary school, and later moved and went to public school. I went to Bulls games as a kid, loved seeing movies at the Carolina Theatre, and I graduated from Northern High School. I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about Durham.
Two years ago I was shocked to learn that Durham has a plantation.
Not only does Durham have a plantation, but it was one of the largest plantations in the South. At its peak, Stagville had over 900 slaves living and working on site, and it stretched out for miles over most of the area that is now known as Treyburn.
I found out about Stagville because my father became a volunteer at the state historic site two years ago. When he told me about it, I couldn’t believe it. He told me about the structures that were still standing, and about the significance Stagville had in the 1800’s.
He gave me a tour of the place and I was amazed. Not only does the owner’s house remain (it was built in the late 1700’s, pre-Revolution, but there is a family cemetery plot, slave quarters, and a huge handmade barn. This is a remarkable piece of history that I had no idea existed.
I was surprised and troubled by that.
Here is this incredible cultural resource that can give us insight into what life was like before and during the Civil War, and no one knows about it. Every Durham native or long-time resident I have talked to about Stagville had the same reaction – no one knew the place existed.
What concerns me is that much of the land that used to be part of the plantation is now divided among many different owners. There are many cabins and buildings that would have supported such a huge slave population, and these structures are literally disintegrating. Without care and upkeep, these artifacts are being reclaimed by nature. They are collapsing and rotting.
I wanted to increase awareness. If the public knows about Stagville and recognizes its historical significance, we can generate more support and funding to preserve its history.
The obvious choice for me was to create a piece of theatre. With a live event, we could bring a new audience to Stagville.
I didn’t want to do a story on the slaveowners, however. While the Bennehans and Camerons who owned the place no doubt have interesting stories, I was more interested in the overwhelming majority of people who lived there – the enslaved community.
My father gave me the idea to create a piece based on the Slave Narrative Project, a collection of thousands of interviews the WPA conducted in the 1930’s with men and women who were old enough to remember what life was like under slavery. I began reading the interviews, and I realized this was a story about slavery and its aftermath that I had never seen or heard before.
Many of the stories are absolutely heartbreaking in their descriptions of cruelty and disregard for humanity. Some of the stories are touching in the optimism maintained by individuals who faced bleak circumstances. The Slave Narratives also raise interesting questions about race and the role of government in our lives.
Next Saturday (4/28/12) we hold auditions for this piece, LET THEM BE HEARD. We are looking for African-American actors who will tell these stories as monologues to be presented in the buildings of Stagville on a lantern-lit evening in June.
AUDITION INFO IS HERE: http://bit.ly/BeHeardAuditions
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you or anyone you know is interested, and I will get you more information.