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Thursday, March 24, 2011 06:30 pm

Slavery in the shadow of Lincoln

Presidential Museum commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with Flight

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Ezra (Christopher Roberts), Oh Beah (Tracie Shaw), Mercy (Tiffany Williams) and Alma (Toshianna Gorens) in Charlayne Woodard’s 90-minute play.
PHOTO BY PATRICK RUSSELL

Playwright Charlayne Woodard has something in common with her characters. Like Oh Beah, Mercy, Ezra, Alma, and Nate – the five slaves in Flight’s ensemble – Woodard is compelled to tell a story. To do so, she had to dig through her own life…twice.

Woodard, who trained at Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, is a member of The Actors Studio and a Tony-nominated performer who has appeared in Law & Order: SVU, Unbreakable, and ER. Before all that, she came face to face with the horrors of slavery in an Albany library. “Slavery in the Americas was the most vicious of all slavery in all parts of the world. For the first time, slaves were seen as nothing more than animals,” she says via phone. Woodard splits most of her time between California and New York, where she just ended a stint as the title character in The Witch of Edmonton..

When Corey Madden of the award-winning youth theater program P.L.A.Y. commissioned Woodard to adapt Br’er Rabbit, she refused. But Madden persisted, and Woodard read the stories that sparked an interest in folklore. She set out to delve into her heritage once more. “I discovered this unbelievable folklore and that led me to African American folktales and slave narratives. The research sucked me in,” she explains. Again, Woodard hit the library – but this time from an adult’s perspective. Instead of Br’er Rabbit, she shifted gears to focus on historic material too compelling to ignore. “I saw in these tales the importance of storytelling and knew that even though we discuss hard themes these stories must be understood by children.” She spent the next two years researching and writing Flight, which opened at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., in January 2005.   

Set on a pre-Civil War plantation, the play tells the story of five slaves whose wife and friend, Sadie, has been sold. Her young son, Jim (who remains unseen), scurries up a tree and refuses to come down. His dad and the others recite well-known stories in an effort to talk him down.

Woodard’s storyline borrows from the actual slave narratives and folktales that had such an impact on her. After Alma confesses to Nate that she failed to stop Mistress from selling Sadie, she presents a red wedding ring that was lost in the struggle. Woodard pulled the detail from her research. “My people wrote down what happened to them and we get to be witnesses to that in part through this play,” she says. Storytelling, Woodard explains, was an important device for African slaves for whom reading, writing, religion and native language were outlawed. The characters in Flight, the playwright says, “tell their stories until [Jim] gets his courage back. Until we all get our courage back.”

Tracie Shaw as Oh Beah narrates part of Flight at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
PHOTO BY PATRICK RUSSELL
As an actor, Woodard knows her fellow thespians long for fun and demanding roles. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s Union Theater, co-directors Phil Funkenbusch and Ed MacMurdo have assembled a cast that rises to the challenge. Each of the five actors recount several stories and therefore must play many characters. Woodard says each actor must thrive as a “master storyteller” – which these five do superbly. Actor Tiffany Williams is not just her character, Mercy; she is also a bear, a conja man and a little girl. Each of her characters moves and sounds distinct. Tracie Shaw as Oh Beah is a force. Christopher Roberts (Ezra) and Toshianna Gorens (Alma) find just the right mix of wisdom, authority, humor and tenderness. Joel Tinsley-Hall delivers a powerful soliloquy about being sold in a poker game and torn from his family that resonates in a way no history book ever can.

Meanwhile, direction by Funkenbusch and MacMurdo lets the story and the performances stand out. The stage is almost bare, covered only with a stone bench, a few logs and a glowing fire. The co-directors and their technical staff allow the story to come alive unobstructed by sets and props and effects. Five people on a stage might be hard to manage, but here they move about gracefully, creating an endless and evolving arrangement of beautiful tableaus.

I walked in to the opening night performance and found myself seated near a young black kid and an elderly white woman as part of a large audience. News like that seems to excite Woodard. “I want people to know what happened,” she says. “I need my nieces and nephews and godchildren to know because it will strengthen them like it strengthens me. We can overcome and if we open up our past even through something like a play, then we know we can carry on.” But most of all, Woodard hopes Flight will help history come alive. “I want people to remember,” she says. “I want people to know that it’s okay to look at. You don’t have to close your eyes.”

Interesting word choice by Woodard. Normally, The Union Theater hosts a multimedia program entitled Lincoln’s Eyes that focuses on issues like slavery and how sorrow, hope and forgiveness are found in the eyes of Lincoln’s many photographs and portraits. Could there ever be a more perfect venue for Flight? On stage, Oh Beah, Nate and the others dig deep to find the strength to transcend the evils of slavery. And on the other side of the curtain, The Great Emancipator watches the show unfold.

Flight continues in the Union Theater March 24-27. Tickets and showtimes at 558-8934 or www.alplm.org.

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker living in Springfield.

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