Slave's story provides focus of radio drama

June 12, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Dramatic stories, simply told, can often convey complex historical movements.

Take the tale of a 23-year-old slave that opens "Free At Last," a drama to be broadcast on an unusual edition of "The Marc Steiner Show" tomorrow on WJHU-FM (88.1, 7:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.).

We never learn the young man's name, nor his fate. But as voiced by actor Bill Grimette, his tale speaks volumes about the institution of slavery and how it fell.

A cooper by training (a barrel maker), the man saw his mother sold off the plantation where he grew up, then was himself sold to a Louisiana planter, for $2,400. To escape a beating, he ran away and lived for 18 months in the swamps.

"Free At Last" is an hour-long radio drama in which we hear the words of people long dead: runaway slaves, freed slaves, slave owners, Civil War soldiers and even President Abraham Lincoln.

It represents excerpts from the book of that title compiled by Ira Berlin and Leslie Rowland, of the University of Maryland's Freedman and Southern Society Project. Since 1976, the researchers have compiled documents from the troubled times after the Emancipation Proclamation, including letters, government edicts and transcripts of interviews with a number of illiterate slaves and freed slaves.

"Illiterate, but by no means inarticulate," narrator Maria Broom says early in the program. The selections recited by Baltimore actors Bill Grimette, Denise Diggs and Tony Tsendeas soon bear her out.

From that first chilling account to a letter to Lincoln from a black soldier's mother pleading for equal treatment for her son and his comrades, the language of "Free At Last" is clear and passionate in a way rarely heard in today's radio talk.

The soldier's mother, for example, urges Lincoln not to withdraw the declaration that freed the slaves.

"When you are dead and in heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the angels sing your praises, I know it," she writes.

"And it's all verbatim," says Mr. Steiner, whose talk show airs Monday through Thursday on WJHU. This is his first attempt at staging radio drama.

The drama resulted from a creative collaboration of many people, he says, especially those at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The production was sponsored by the Maryland Humanities Council.

All three actors are faculty members at the school, as is Mr. Steiner. Senior producer Andrea Jackson-Gewirtz is a 1986 graduate of the school, and Donald Hicken, the school's drama department head, directed the performers.

Mr. Steiner says the radio program grew from a stage performance of the readings by the same performers commissioned by Mr. Hicken for last summer's Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Work began on the show last fall, with the actors coming to the WJHU studios to record tracks with technical production assistant Lisa Morgan. But the final "mix" of the show was done late last week.

"They start out sounding all pristine, like they did it in a studio, then we sit here and try to rough it all up," said WJHU engineer Chris Czeh, as he worked on the final version with Ms. Jackson-Gewirtz. The readings are enlivened by sound effects, such as birds singing, and musical accompaniment, from martial tunes to slow, keening gospel songs.

The drama documents how many slaves fled their owners by joining Union military units. They worked hard and fought well but also faced discrimination, according to some officers' accounts.

Mr. Steiner foresees undertaking more historical projects with the Maryland Humanities Council.

"There is all kinds of great stuff we can create for the radio from their archives," he says, mentioning accounts of the European encounters with American Indians in Maryland and the life of Frederick Douglass.

He says he plans to seek national distribution of "Free At Last" and also intends to make it available for use in Maryland schools during Black History Month next February.

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