by Byron Woods
One of the closest experiences any of us will have to rival time travel is taking place these nights just after dark in Horton Grove, a verdant section in Stagville, a state historic site several miles out Old Oxford Highway. Prior to the Civil War, Stagville held the dubious distinction of being the largest plantation in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the United States: a spread some 47 square miles in length which stretched to the north and east of Durham.
Back then, Horton Grove was where the slaves lived on whose labor the plantation ran. Now its fields are populated only by deer, cicadas, fireflies and the vocal chorus of frogs off in the distance. Its gray two-story quarters, built in the 1850s out of wood and handmade brick, are quiet.
Until, that is, our host conducts us, by lantern light, over the threshold of the largest of the structures on the green. And in that humble, whitewashed room, a woman now dead for 70 years speaks once again. Her name is Tempie Herndon.
Sometime in 1936 a visiting writer for the Work Projects Administration interviewed her because, even at the age of 103, she vividly recalled the details of life on a plantation not far from here, before the emancipation of 1865. During the 1930s, WPA writers would interview 176 North Carolinians like her about their experiences under slavery. The Slave Narrative Project, as it was ultimately called, filled 17 volumes with the verbatim testimony of some 2,300 former slaves from across the South. (Some of its narratives are available as an ebook and online; a complete hardbound copy of the collection is in the State Library in Raleigh.)
Last year, Bare Theatre’s artistic director Todd Buker adapted seven of the interviews and staged them with an all-star cast under the title LET THEM BE HEARD during Stagville’s Juneteenth Celebration. Though we did not review the show (whose one-weekend run closed before our following issue), we remembered the production last December, when Let Them Be Heard made the INDY’s list of best shows of the year, earning superlatives in ensemble, direction and special achievement in the humanities.
This memorable production’s second season closes this weekend at Stagville. Even with a week of shows added this year, the work clearly deserves a longer run than it will get. After a couple of weather-induced opening night glitches—and a cast member out due to illness—on Friday, Saturday night’s performance fully conveyed the impact of the work’s initial run.
Theater-goers familiar with Gil Faison’s work will anticipate the brimstone he brings to Thomas Hall, a man resentful of the degree to which the lives and stories of his people have been appropriated by writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe—and the person taking down his words.
“You are going around to get a story of slavery conditions and the persecutions of Negroes before the Civil War and the economic conditions concerning them since that war,” he mocks at one point.
After a moment’s silence, he fixes an audience member with a look. Then he bellows, "YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BEFORE THIS LATE DAY ABOUT ALL THAT!”
Barbette Hunter’s emotional range blossomed Saturday night as Tempie Herndon recalled the details of her wedding to Exter Durham, who worked at another plantation nearby. There’s poignancy as Tempie relates that their honeymoon had to be cut short—Durham was expected back to work the following day. Still, she focuses on a bounty of images from her life that clearly continued to bring her joy.
Actors Kyma Lassiter and Justin Smith ably explored the darker sides of the slaves’ experiences. As Fanny Cannady, from Durham, Lassiter recounts in graphic detail the sadism in slave owner’s punishments of their captives. Smith reflects, with an eerie, simmering anger, the fate of an owner who tried to sell a slave’s wife away—and what became of the couple in the aftermath.
It will surprise some to find that these people have differing opinions on the "curious institution” they once lived under. Phillip Bernard Smith’s formal character, Rev. Squire Dowd from Raleigh, admits to having “a conservative view of slavery.” But a number of them criticize the plight in which millions of people across the South were suddenly expected, with little or no money, resources or land, to fend for themselves without the few, begrudged supports that plantation life had provided to that point.
Let Them Be Heard remains a singularly moving tribute to the resilience and conscience of a host of witnesses no longer with us. In the last show of the evening, the early narrators follow us from a distance by lantern light, just after dark, as we walk down a dirt path to the plantation’s great barn. Their presence in those final narratives reinforces a sense of community weaker in their absence during the show's earlier iterations. (For this production, the late show's the one you want to see.)
They gaze at us calmly, as we stand among the timbers in the massive, century-old structure. Without a word, they bid us do two things: Remember them. And bear witness.
We owe it to them and to ourselves to walk so brief a distance in their footsteps.