John Brown's story retold

Production: Two works on the famed abolitionist will be featured in a dramatic reading with music this weekend.

May 31, 2001|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Quick quiz: Who was John Brown, and what are the poems about him?

Score one meager point for remembering "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave." That's the line from a popular Civil War ditty "John Brown's Body" about firebrand abolitionist John Brown. In 1859, Brown led an anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (about an hour west of Howard County).

Brown's attempt at revolution and slave-liberation failed, and he was hanged six weeks later in nearby Charles Town, W.Va., for conspiracy and treason.

Score a couple of big ones for knowing anything about another work titled "John Brown's Body," American poet Stephen Vincent Benet's Pulitzer Prize-winning, epic masterpiece about the Civil War.

Both works will be featured in a dramatic reading with musical accompaniment this weekend at the Elkridge Assembly Rooms on Lawyers Hill Road in Elkridge. Benet's poem will be presented by a dozen members of the Columbia Community Players, under the direction of Charles Maloney.

The poem's opening scene is aboard a slave ship bound for America. Benet's long, narrative poem tells the story of slavery, John Brown's insurrection and the horrors of the Civil War through memorable rhyming couplets and dramatic free verse.

This weekend's reading in Elkridge "absolutely comes to life," said Patti Restivo, producer and cast member. "You will see voices and characters emerge. It's very fast-paced. The music is lovely."

Appearing in addition to Restivo are Columbia residents Dan Bravmann (also the musical director), Delia Chiu, Steve Bruun, and Ed Kuhl; Elkridge resident Mark Allen; and Richard Blom- quist, Todd Cunningham, Nancy Dall, David O'Brien, Heidi Toll and Susan Weber from surrounding areas.

The actors, dressed in black, perform on a small stage with only simple chairs and a wooden box as props. They tell their story through spoken word, group and solo singing and humming, and to the accompaniment of cello, banjo and guitar.

The music includes period songs such as "Blow the Man Down" and "John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave."

The latter has a remarkable history. The original tune was a camp-meeting hymn that became a popular Union Army song about John Brown. Later, Julia Ward Howe wrote new words and published them in Atlantic Monthly under the title by which it is known today - "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The venue for "John Brown's Body" was selected by the Vision Howard County committee, Restivo said.

The Elkridge Assembly Rooms is an authentic Civil War-era building. It was built by Lawyers Hill residents as a neutral meeting place to reunite neighbors who had been polarized by the war.

The building might be one of Howard County's oldest community centers. It has housed theatrical productions, recitals, potluck dinners and Fourth of July parties since 1871. It is still owned and used for these purposes by the Lawyers Hill Community homeowners group, whose members will serve as box office and concession attendants for this weekend's event.

Those who attend "John Brown's Body" will be treated to an authentic 19th-century experience. The building has no heat, no air conditioning and no plumbing (modern bathroom facilities will be provided for the occasion - outside). The small, wood-shingled building has the look of an aged cabin. Its 10 large, multipaned windows provide a breezy, camp-like feeling. The interior is decorated with original posters and playbills.

But the highlight will be the opportunity to ponder, through artistic presentation, the complexities and morality of terrorist acts performed for a holy cause. "John Brown's Body" raises questions that are as modern as this morning's headlines. In the words of Stephen Vincent Benet, "You can weigh John Brown's body well enough, but how and in what balance weigh John Brown?"

"John Brown's Body" will be presented at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Elkridge Assembly Rooms, Lawyers Hill Road, Elkridge. Admission is $5. Information: 410-637-5289 or

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