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.
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.