History takes the stage

Sunday, October 21, 2007 | 8:20 p.m. CDT; updated 4:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Chris Montgomery is the chairwoman of the State Historical Society's program committee. An earlier version misidentified her position.

COLUMBIA — A play written by a former Missouri slave will be featured Tuesday as the second theatrical reading put on by the State Historical Society in the Missouri History in Performance Theatre.

Written in 1858 by former slave William Wells Brown after his escape from servitude, the play “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom” is considered to be the first play written by an African-American to be published in America.

Brown’s play tells the story of two slaves who secretly marry and who are determined to gain their freedom in order to stay together.

This is not the first time the State Historical Society has put on such a production. In the spring, the theatre — founded by the State Historical Society — debuted with “Missouri Places: Letters from the Land,” which told the story of travelers passing through the state through passages from diaries, immigrant letters and Missouri newspapers.

While Brown’s play is only the second of its kind, the society hopes that this performance will be “the second of many,” according to Chris Montgomery, chairwoman of the society’s program committee.

“Hopefully this can become a frequent thing,” she said.

The play is written and told from the point of view of a slave in 19th-century Missouri.

“From a theater history point of view, it is so fascinating to hear this kind of vantage point,” Montgomery said.

Cheryl Black, an MU theater professor who will be directing the reading, also thinks Brown’s play is a unique and often untold type of story. While the content is similar to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Black said it is not identical.

“This is not some sweet little white lady’s idea,” Black said. “Brown’s play is more of a savage satire — not sentimental.”

Black has been preparing for this performance by reading and compiling primary sources pertinent to the play and by reading Brown’s biography. The performance is not just a reading of Brown’s script, but is rather a beefed-up version rich in historical anecdotes. Black thinks her “assemblage” will be much more informative and appealing to the audience than a concert reading of the play.

Mary Barile, a theater historian who is dedicated to reviving older plays and to creating new performances based on Missouri history, is working with Montgomery through the State Historical Society to put history on the stage.

“My goal is to have people see that they can enjoy history in a theatrical setting without, I hope, losing what that history is telling us,” Barile said.

Montgomery said the society’s main goal in doing this type of theatrical event is to find a creative way to promote the use of historical resources.

“I think there’s an old saying that goes, ‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,’ ” Black said. “And while it may be cliché, it’s so true.”

The free performance — sponsored by the State Historical Society, the Center for Arts & Humanities and the MU Department of Theatre — begins 7 p.m. Tuesday at Conley House, near the corner of Conley Avenue and Sanford Street. The reading will last about an hour and will be followed by questions from the audience and a reception sponsored by the Center for Arts & Humanities.

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