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Durham County is home to Stagville, a remarkable historic site comprising remnants of the sprawling Bennehan-Cameron plantation. In addition to the main house, a marvelous barn and part of the Horton Grove slave quarters have been preserved. Those former slave houses are currently the stage for Bare Theatre’s moving presentation, Let Them Be Heard in Winter, in which six actors speak the words of former slaves on the land and in the rooms formerly inhabited by slaves.
This is Bare Theatre’s third production of linked monologues taken from the rich fund of narratives by former slaves collected in the 1930s by workers in the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. Some were published; now they are available online at Project Gutenberg. (Organized alphabetically by narrator name, North Carolina’s are available in several formats here and here.) Despite questions about bias (interviewers were mostly white) and accuracy, these “slave narratives,” as they are commonly called, remain a fund of wonder, astonishment, and pain.
Todd Buker, managing director of Bare Theatre and director of the production, began the process of creating a theatrical event from North Carolina’s narratives by reading them all. As many of these stories offer little context, he pulled out ones with the most descriptive detail. “I was looking for good storytellers who offered vivid details and/or unique perspectives,” he says. “Once I had selected about 15-20 narratives, we had the actors read various ones. Whenever I saw an actor connect with a narrative, that became their monologue.
The talented actors give voice to histories simultaneously harrowing and inspiring. When their original narrators were interviewed, the youngest would have been about 70, while older people ranged up into their late 90s, so what was remembered varied a great deal, as did individual experiences within the world of slaves and masters in different parts of the state. Warren Keyes speaks as David Blount of Beaufort County; Malcolm Green as Ben Johnson of Hecktown, Durham; and Gil Faison as Dave Lawson of Blue Wing; with Barbette Hunter as Patsy Mitchner, Terra Hodge as Mattie Curtis, and Phillip B. Smith as John Thomas Williams, all of Raleigh. All inhabited their characters deeply, amplifying their words with all the actors’ skills of tone, inflection, timing, and gesture. Each person will respond differently, but to me the most moving stories were those of Mattie Curtis, who lived long and prospered “after freedom came,” buying her own farm and raising her own cotton and her own children; and those of John Thomas Williams. Williams’ simple statement, in the mouth of rare actor Phillip B. Smith, sums up the lasting barbarity of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the United States. "I don't know who I am nor what my true name is… I have asked thousands of questions trying to find out who my people are but no one has ever told me who I am or who my people are. If I have any brothers and sisters, I don't know it.”
The series of stories is given action and variety by the actors appearing in different spots with the audience moving to them, led by guides with kerosene lamps. Some are told by a bonfire, some in one cabin, some in another. Even on a beautiful mild February night, the chill and mud reminded one of the physical harshness of the slave’s life, adding to the impact of the tales. Although there were anomalies visible in the dusk of the evening’s first performance (shoes too shiny, hats too new, a terrible modern lantern casting blue light), and one has to hear an earnest prologue by Historic Stagville staff, Let Them Be Heard in Winter is a powerful testament to survival and endurance — not only of bodies, but spirits, wisdom, and humor, hate and love.
And if anyone thinks it needs such, the series of Let Them Be Heard productions is a complete vindication of the WPA program that preserved these histories. I happened to have read a number of these narratives previously, along with a lot of other history, but there were children at this performance for whom these monologues were obviously mind-expanding. Story by story, their eyes got larger and their expressions more amazed, horrified, baffled, and reverent.
The program repeats in Horton Grove rain or shine, Feb. 22 and Feb. 28-March 1, and is highly recommended. There is no seating: wear suitable shoes and clothing for outdoors. Let Them Be Heard, adapted for an indoor stage by Jeri Lynn Schulke and including additional stories, will appear at the Carrboro ArtsCenter March 7-9 and 14-16. This summer it will tour to two other historic plantation sites in North Carolina, after which Buker hopes to expand the project to include surrounding states and their narratives.