For everything there is a season, a time to love, a time for peace and a time to take rifles into your own hands. When it came to abolishing slavery in the mid-1850s, white abolitionist John Brown was convinced blood had to spill, whereas black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an escaped self-educated slave, considered transforming the law of the land as the most appropriate means to black freedom. Although their methodologies were at odds, the two befriended each other in dark times. They became high-contrast comrades committed to a just cause, and had known each other for more than 10 years before their meeting in Chambersburg, Penn., in 1859. It would be their last meeting.
Witness this convergence of powerful minds, this fateful meeting of abolitionist titans in Harper’s Ferry, at the Matrix Theatre Company through May 18. With Harper’s Ferry, Matrix continues its mission to “foster a community of creativity and social justice through the development and production of original theatre.” And what better subject matter to submerge original energies into than Americans devoted to social justice at an intriguing point in our past? For more than a year, the Matrix Company Collective Playwrights Workshop (this time around including the efforts of Wesley Nethercott and Beverly Mayfield, as well as input from Nkenge Zola and Dexter Mays) has been researching and reconstructing human beings out of history books and hearsay.
Mays and Nethercott not only penned the play, they portray its two major figures. Nethercott’s Brown is a jumpy hothead, a born-free radical emphasizing each argument out of his harsh mouth with agitated gestures — while May’s Douglass buffers Brown with his calming, well-dressed manner and eloquent tongue. Brown does his best to convince Douglass to join his war of necessity. Douglass’ counterarguments, driven by peaceful “Christian” tendencies, try to steer Brown into a less volatile political path.
Douglass is encouraged by the efforts of a little-known lawyer opposed to slavery and running for Congress, a man named Abraham Lincoln, but Brown is a man of passions and actions. He feels a “stirring in the land” and knows that the time is right to carry out his divine mission to emancipate the slaves, by any gun-toting means. Fatefully, he has his sights set on raiding the military arsenal at Harpers Ferry to arm his divine war.
The path from dry text to live theater is not an easy one. With limited information to draw from, the workshop has taken on an ambitious project in fleshing out a debate from another time. Unfortunately, impeccable intentions do not insure a perfect production. Harper’s Ferry plays more like a work in progress than a ready-for-the-public dramatic centerpiece. But with some more ink and sweat, Ferry’s rough-around-the-edges transitions could be smoothed out. The flow between present and past actions is roughly executed with long blackouts and much screaming and scuffling. The inconsistencies in styles of language are most likely the result of meshing imagined and actual dialogue, as well as the actors’ compatibility with emoting their lines.
Notwithstanding multiple obstacles, Ferry still has its moments. Shields “Emperor” Green (Brian Johnson), another historical figure worked into the scenario, has panicked. He has just broken free from slavery, but he’s lost, until a friend in the dark tells him to follow the drinking gourd in the sky to the North Star.
“Do you sees it?” “Yeah.”
Shields follows the star to his free destiny. The drinking gourd (or the Big Dipper) and the North Star may have had different monikers back then, but they’re shining guides in our times as well. For the characters in the play, they work as symbols of emancipation — and for us, they work as a direct personal connection to distant people in history.
Divine and devout fanatic or cold-blooded murderer, however you chose to view him, Brown’s passion to abolish slavery seems to have been the violent, insurrectionary spark that ignited the Civil War. And Douglass’ internationally renowned anti-slavery oratories, in addition to his adherence and contributions to orderly democratic processes, influenced President Lincoln. Douglass went on to serve the federal government in many official capacities long after this fateful meeting.
Harper’s Ferry is original theater — better than a textbook, not as slick as Shakespeare, but a perfect illustration of how it often takes a combination of crazy chaos and law and order to propel dark times into the light of liberty.
Harper’s Ferry is at Matrix Theatre Company (2730 Bagley, Detroit) through May 18. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, call 313-967-0999 or visit www.matrixtheatre.org.Anita Schmaltz writes about theater for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]