'Free at Last' unchains power of slavery letters Festival of the Arts offers a celebration of enlightenment

June 17, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

There's nothing stuffy about the sixth annual Columbia Festival of the Arts, running today through June 26, at several venues in Columbia.

The atmosphere is as casual as the entertainment offerings are varied. Performers often connect informally with audiences through open rehearsals and discussion periods, or connect with each other through collaborative productions. And besides ticketed shows, many performances are free and take place along the downtown lakefront.

Brand new is a documentary theater piece titled "Free at Last: Images of Emancipation," being performed tonight through Sunday at Slayton House. Culled from letters and documents in the archival anthology "Free at Last, a Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War," this program speaks to the experience of African-Americans during the Civil War. And it speaks to several festival goals by showcasing new work, socially important issues, and local talent.

"It's a new production, which is something we try to do every year," says Lynne Nemeth, Columbia Festival managing director. And it's also an interesting story that a lot of people don't know about. There's definitely an education aspect to the way in which it brings history to life."

Leslie S. Rowland, a history professor at the University of Maryland College Park and co-editor of the book, says she and her scholarly colleagues always thought of these docments as things that should be read aloud. She relates that when they would come across a particularly gripping letter in the National Archives, "someone would let out a whoop and say, 'Listen to this!' "

So it was only natural that following the book's publication in 1992, there were several dramatic readings by local actors in the Washington area. It also made sense for her to lend advice to the Columbia Festival team working on this production.

"The whole production is a way to combine actors who know about dramatic performance with historians who know about the past," the historian says. "It's not a docu-drama, because it literally uses the words of the documents."

Speaking for the theatrical team, Donald Hicken, the artistic director for the Columbia Festival and the director of "Free at Last," says: "The challenge is to create something that is historically accurate and yet dramatically compelling."

Mr. Hicken uses such terms as "theater of fact" and "documentary theater" to describe the process of editing 25 letters and depositions for the sake of dramatic concision. No additional dialogue was scripted, and there is no narrator.

Instead, actors Denise Diggs, Bill Grimmete and Tony Tsendeas, who along with Mr. Hicken all teach at Baltimore's School for the Arts, thought of ways in which -- through direct recitation, a few strategic props and bits of costuming -- they could bring alive an array of black and white, slave and free characters.

The actors also will be supported by photographs and documents projected on a screen, as well as taped voiceovers and musical material.

Although this support will help bring the Civil War era alive, the dramatic effectiveness of the piece ultimately relies on the spare power of letters, such as the one in which a black Union soldier vows to free his daughter from slavery and wonders about the morality of the white Christian woman who owns the girl. He writes: "As for their Christianity, I'm sure they have such in hell."

Dr. Rowland observes that such letters elucidate "the way enlistment in the Union army empowered the black man, when for a brief time, the agenda of the slaves and the ex-slaves coincided with that of the federal government."

Even more specifically, this dramatic packaging of some of the ++ letters is meant to have audiences question their assumptions about Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator of the slaves.

"One of our purposes is to shift the spotlight away from Lincoln, not because he was unimportant, but because emancipation was a process, not a moment, that had many actors, and that the motor force was the slaves themselves," Dr. Rowland says. Because Union soldiers and Congress were moving ahead with measures to free slaves and enlist them in the Union cause, she says, "Lincoln ratified [with the Emancipation Proclamation] a process already under way."

"It was the slaves who made the Civil War a war for their freedom," says Mr. Hicken, who hopes that this historical message is spread at the Columbia Festival and beyond. He's planning a touring version of "Free at Last: Images of Emancipation" to go to area schools, and he also has plans for a radio version.

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