In 1860, about 331,000 enslaved African-Americans made up a third of North Carolina's population. Only 176 of them were still around in the 1930s, when the Works Progress Administration toured the state to interview people with firsthand memories of life during slavery.
You can find their words online (bit.ly/ncWPAsn) and in print at the State Library of North Carolina. But when those texts are embodied by a group of gifted actors in director G. Todd Buker's Let Them Be Heard, they speak with renewed power. Given how hard-won those witnesses' freedom was, such a gift is priceless.
Historians have documented the degree to which true liberation remained a cruel chimera in the decades following the Civil War. With little to no money, land, education or training, many former slaves were easy prey for an economic system run by their former captors. As noted by Jeremiah DeGennaro, historian and assistant site manager at Durham County's Historic Stagville, "the plantation system continued by another name, and through a slightly different management process."
Patsy Mitchner, an 84-year-old Raleigh native played by Barbette Hunter, acknowledges as much when she refers to slavery and freedom as "two snakes full of poison ... the snake called slavery lay with his head pointed south and the snake called freedom lay with his head pointed north."
Five other narratives in this brief, brisk evening come from three prior versions of the show that were presented by lantern and firelight, over the last two years, in the slave quarters of Stagville, formerly the state's largest plantation. Two previously unperformed narratives are added to this version.
Actor Justin Smith brings an eerie chill to Dave Lawson's poetic account of his grandparents' death, and Malcolm Green takes on Ben Johnson's eyewitness testimony about the Ku Klux Klan.
Monet Noelle Marshall and Terra Hodge embody twin tales of triumph, the former in Mary Barbour's story of her family's nighttime escape from slavery and the latter in Mattie Curtis' longer struggle to achieve economic freedom. Robin Carmon Marshall shares the plight of a young girl, raised as a handmaid in the master's house, after she is taken from that world of relative privilege.
Gil Faison preserves all the venom and vinegar in his portrayal of Raleigh's Thomas Hall, and Phillip B. Smith channels the poignancy of a 77-year-old who has never known his true name.
As in previous iterations, the production retains the witnesses' original language, including racial epithets. Presented in a theater rather than on historic ground, this touring version loses some atmosphere. But that loss is negated by the fact that all eight actors are together on stage, not isolated in different rooms at Stagville. The group forms a chorus that powerfully affirms each member's testimony.
That testimony is not only powerful; it is irreplaceable. Giving it human breath liberates it—and, perhaps, us—from the confines of history.