In students' play, slaves find 'religion'

February 26, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

As a slave and preacher, Devron Young has some electrifying moments in "Crossings: The Christianizing of the Slaves." This performance differed dramatically from others, says Devron, a Baltimore School for the Arts senior. "It's like a writer performing his own play; he really knows what's going on in the play. That's how I think we feel," he says.

This past week, to commemorate Black History Month, Devron and four other members of the Baltimore School for the Arts Senior Acting Ensemble, took "Crossings" to city high schools and Towson State University. Sunday, they will perform the play at a celebration honoring the 80th anniversary of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Begun last year, the "Crossings" project was passed on to this year's seniors in September. Assigned by their teacher, Donald Hicken, to research the question, "How did the slaves become Christians?" the students spent hours at the Maryland Historical Society and the Enoch Pratt Library searching for primary materials that would form their answer.

Creating and performing the play was a process full of discovery, says Devron, a finalist in the prestigious Presidential Scholar national academic competition. "When we first thought about doing a project about slavery, we didn't think we would find a lot of information about it . . . what we all learned in school was 'that slaves picked cotton' . . . but there's so much more we were supposed to learn about."

For the five students, making "Crossings" was also a thorough dramatic exercise.

"The idea is making theater from scratch," Mr. Hicken says. The "docudrama is the easiest form to create. You're not being asked to invent text, and if you can stick with primary sources, you can basically arrange, transpose, edit and create stuff and . . . come up with the basic ingredients of what makes a drama."

In slave narratives, folk tales and folklore, histories, and actual sermons preached to slaves, the students discovered the inherent dramatic conflict between African spiritual traditions -- rich in nature, gods and wise men -- and rough-hewn American churches where the Bible was often invoked to justify and perpetuate slavery.

The students also learned how the slaves found in Christianity parallels with their own religious beliefs, and welded a faith intended to subjugate into a source of inspiration and power.

On long Monday afternoons, ensemble members "workshopped" the piles of primary material they found. Sifting, juxtaposing, reading aloud and debating, the group compressed its research into a potent, 45-minute piece with recurring themes and symbols.

An African creation myth which speaks of how Mutima -- "longing for God" -- became a part of humankind, frames the play as it travels from Africa to America.

Water carries great weight in the play as a symbol for life -- fertility -- and death. As a Yoruban myth is related, Joy Hooper, portraying an African woman, performs a silent dance with a bowl of water perched on her head, an achievement said to bode pregnancy. Later, as a slave, Joy recounts how she planned to drown her second newborn, rather than watch the child grow up a slave.

In passages from sermons, essays and slave narratives, the polar sensibilities of masters and slaves are exposed in a dialogue that propels "Crossings" to a triumphant conclusion where faith and the prospect of freedom merge. Included in the script, for example, is the 1731 lament of a frustrated bishop namedGeorge Berkeley: "The gross barbarity and rudeness of their manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages and the weakness and shallowness of their minds renders it in a manner impossible to attain to any progress in their conversion."

In response, Mary Prince, a West Indian slave whose narratives were published in London a century later, gives lie to this harsh view, as she describes a Methodist meeting for prayer, where another slave "prayed them all to forgive him, and he prayed that God would forgive him. He said it was a horrible thing for a [black slave driver] to have sometimes to beat his own wife or sister; but he must do so if ordered by his master."

At one point, student Sheilynn Wactor speaks as an African, remembering the priests, magicians and wise men of her tribal religion. Later, in an eerie role reversal, she is a preacher, spitting out disdain for slaves who "believe in second sight, in apparitions, charms, witchcraft, and in a kind of irresistible Satanic influence."

In another scene, the performers cluster together on the simple set, and hold their fists up, as if chained together on a slave ship. Their movement, as the imaginary ship is buffeted by waves, resembles the rhythmic sway of a gospel choir, a foretelling of the solace many slaves -- and later free African-Americans -- learned to draw from from Christian faith and song.

For Sheilynn, an African-American, the greatest challenge in performing "Crossings" was portraying an authentic white preacher whose ugly words once dehumanized the black congregation.

"There were a lot of ways I did that sermon," Sheilynn says. "At first, it was really powerful and angry, but that was really scary to me. After I had done it, I was still shaking.

As she discussed the role during rehearsals with Mr. Hicken, Sheilynn realized that the preacher did not deserve her strongest emotions. "It shouldn't even have that much power. It's very false, very superficial," Sheilynn says. The preacher "didn't feel anything for these people."

CROSSINGS'

L Where: Martin's Eudowood in Eudowood Plaza, Putty Hill Road.

When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $30.

% Call: (410) 521-3413.

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