This summer marks the thirteenth season that the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre — itself in its 37th season — has presented North Carolina playwright Mark R. Sumner’s Pathway to Freedom. The work gives an historical account of the days prior to the Civil War when the slave states were passing laws making it illegal to aid runaway slaves. Sumner’s work concentrates on several key individuals in North Carolina who opposed and fought these laws, particularly in the area of Orange, Alamance, and the surrounding counties. Pivotal in the fight against slavery, and the building of the Underground Railroad, were the Quakers — specifically those of Cane Creek — and the Wesleyans, both of whom believed slavery should be abolished.
The play focuses on a small and intricate group of individuals that were instrumental in moving runaway slaves north, to Ohio and eventually up into Canada. Two of the most prominent Cane Creek Quakers are Levi and Katie Coffin (Charles Armstrong and Nickie Hilton), and the friends they have acquired share their sense of injustice toward the blacks who are enslaved in the area. This is particularly true of the slaveowner plantations owned by Dr. and Mrs. Bradley (Mark Tope and Joan Hedrick) in Orange County, and by Mordecai Wilson (James Hedrick) and his family in Guilford.
A wedding seems to be a joyous occasion, but the slaves who have married off young Miss Bradley to the Stone family of Mississippi fear for her safety. The Stones are known far and wide for their ill-treatment of their large slave population. Dr. Bradley gives his daughter as a wedding gift the young woman who is her favorite slave, Esse, who will travel south with her. But Esse was raised on the Stone plantation and knows first hand the horrors she herself suffered. She has three children — Joshua (Nathan Rogers), Mary (Kyla Dorsey), and the newborn Michael. She knows she, her children, and her husband William (Justin Thomas) must run or suffer a cruel and desperate future at the hands of the Stone family.
Several people help such runaways within the county. There is the Quaker couple, the Coffins, and a freed black woman, Mama Harris (Jackie Wilson), who uses her place on the Coffin farm to help move slaves northward. She is aided by Preacher John (James Shields), himself a Freedman, and by a shadowy figure of a man who calls himself a “conductor” in the Railroad, Jeter Hatfield (Jeremy Bukauskas). Hatfield is almost rabid in his anti-slavery views and confronts those who would enslave the people of North Carolina openly when he can. His battles with the Stone family, and those of the Bradleys and the Vestals of Alamance, are newsworthy and controversial. He is a sworn enemy to Hannibal Quave (Kyle Travis), a man who deals in slaves and moves those sold from place to place, usually making them walk to their new owners in chains. They are brutally whipped if they misbehave in any way.
Sumner’s story centers on William and Esse’s flight from the trip south to Mississippi and the Stone Plantation. The family of five is led by Hatfield to the Ohio River. Beyond the river is freedom. But Quave and his men reach and capture the band before they can cross; in the melee, Esse kills her daughter, maims her son and carries her baby, Michael, with her into the river, where both of them drown. George Vestal (Zach Roe), one of Quave’s men, witnesses this carnage and is terribly moved by it; he cannot understand what would lead a mother to such a terrible act. William is recaptured, and he and his son Joshua are returned to their lives on the Bradley farm.
Sumner’s work lays out the details of how and why the Underground Railroad was a successful ploy against slavery in North Carolina prior to the Civil War, and how the Coffins, pivotal in the ruse, moved several hundred slaves north along their “Pathway to Freedom.” Many songs fill the show, indicating the spirituals that the blacks sang among themselves. There were secret meanings hidden in those songs on how to move north. Songs such as “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” were instructions on how to avoid marauding slavers and keep safe while traveling. Vestal, deeply moved by the events he witnesses at the Ohio River, turns 180 degrees and himself becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Pathway to Freedom is an epic venture that lays bare the horrors of slavery and the dangerous and self-sacrificing movement that was erected to help battle against it. The cast of thirty-three (including a double-handful of local children) gives a stirring account of how people of vision fought against a Southern Institution until slavery could be abolished. It also showed how inbred slavery was within the southern states, which relied to a great degree on slavery to amass wealth. Sumner’s work is a snapshot of pre-Civil War North Carolina and its role in what has become a legend in the anti-slavery movement of the eighteen hundreds. It cannot fail to move the viewer to a new understanding of the abolitionist movement.
The Summer Celebration at the Sword of Peace in Snow Camp, NC, is but a half-hour’s drive from Chapel Hill on the Old Greensboro Highway. Simply pass through the hamlet of Eli Whitney, find the Snow Camp crossroads ten miles beyond, and follow the signs to the theater. Pick up some literature also on The Sword of Peace and the other shows that will be opening this July and August, including two children’s shows and a fully-staged presentation of The Wiz as the season closer. There is a full weekend’s series of events happening out at the summer celebration compound, with historic buildings, a small Quaker 1800s market, a gift shop and an ice cream factory. See our theatre listings for more information.