Missouri theater group tells story of former Missouri slave

Sunday, February 1, 2009 | 4:41 p.m. CST; updated 7:41 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 1, 2009

BOONVILLE – The first time that Thomas Pawley heard about Celia, he wasn't interested. The story caught his eye some years later, when the production company that owned the rights to the story dropped its plans because a key element was missing — Celia's voice.

"I thought I could find Celia's voice," Pawley said. "I was interested in (the story) because this (woman) made the decision to take control of her own life, and the law was against her because she was property. It's a very human story."

If you go

WHAT: Song of the Middle River, written by Thomas D. Pawley III

WHERE: Boonville’s Thespian Hall

WHEN: Feb. 6, 7 p.m.

ADMISSION: $5 at the door

MORE INFORMATION: The play is for mature audiences only. For more information contact the State Historical Society of Missouri 573-882-2476

The State Historical Society will host a production of the play "Song of the Middle River" at 7 p.m.  Friday at Boonville’s Thespian Hall. The production is a part of the historical society’s Missouri History in Performance Theater, or MOHiP.

"Song of the Middle River" is MOHiP’s first production of 2009. MOHiP was founded  two years ago by Boonville playwright Mary Barile to present plays created from primary documents about historical events that took place in the state.

"I’ve always been interested in trying to combine theater and history," Barile said. "It’s a great way to introduce history to people beyond something like memorizing a date or reading a textbook.”          

 "Song of the Middle River," set in 1855, tells the little-known story of a woman named Celia, who was a slave on a plantation in New Bloomfield.  For years, Celia was sexually abused by Robert Newsom – the man who owned her.  Celia eventually made the decision to end the abuse and killed Newsom. She was later tried for murder in Fulton, was found guilty and was hanged.

According to Pawley, the story of Celia is particularly significant because though she was oppressed throughout her short life, she fought back against her abuse and was defended by lawyers in a trial.

“It shows in a very vivid way the circumstances that many female slaves found themselves in, how they were physically, mentally and socially unable to control their bodies,” Pawley said. 

"Song of the Middle River" is one of several historical plays Pawley has written. According to the retired Lincoln University professor, when he visited the site of the Newsom plantation, he was particularly moved by the cemetery where the Newsom family was buried right next to the unmarked graves of their slaves.

It is that historical relevance of Celia's story that made it a prime candidate for a MOHiP production.

“We want to make the human stories of history come alive out of the archives,” said Chris Montgomery, MOHiP outreach liaison.

"Song of the Middle River," like all MOHiP productions, will be performed in a readers theater format. There are no props, sets or costumes, and the actors and director are all volunteers. This is the second year MOHiP has produced a play in February that is significant to Black History Month.           

“The story has touched people locally, and it opens up a discussion about the history of African-American life in Missouri,” Barile said.

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priscilla horn February 2, 2009 | 8:23 p.m.

This play like a must see, especially as February is Black History Month. This article piqued my interest. Thank you!

(Report Comment)
Judy Deriso February 3, 2009 | 12:34 p.m.

Thought provoking article. Celia's life is personalized and causes one to confront an ugly truth.

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