The Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Irondale Ensemble Project in Fort Greene are teaming up to rediscover and present to the public the story of Brooklyn's role in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States. By Fall 2013 each of the partners will unveil permanent exhibitions as part of the project, In Pursuit of Freedom. Their goals are to show how prominent Brooklyn was in the nineteenth century struggle against slavery and to restore Brooklyn to the forefront of the continuing campaign for social justice in the United States. Part of the plan is to place 20 highly visible historical markers at different sites in the borough.
The Irondale Ensemble Project has already created and is performing a new dramatic work, Color Between The Lines, at their theater in the Irondale Center at 85 S. Oxford Street in the historic Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. The play is based on primary source material on the history of Brooklyn made available by the other two organizations.
I had a chance to see Color Between The Lines during its initial run. Although it remains a work-in-progress, it is already a pulsating and powerful production. While some of the vignettes were a little avant-garde for my taste, the music -- an eclectic mix of blues, country and contemporary rock -- the physicality of the dancing, and the acting by this small, interracial cast were terrific and most of the pieces in the production were compelling. The best part of the play was the way the actors brought long-forgotten participants in the anti-slavery campaign back to life, especially Reverend James Pennington, a fugitive from slavery himself, who dedicated his life to ending the institution. Among other things, Pennington led and campaign to desegregate New York City trolleys and officiated at the wedding of Frederick Douglass and his wife in New York City after Douglass escaped from slavery.
Because Color Between The Lines is a work-in-progress, I have some suggestions for the ensemble to consider. The production would benefit from a narrator who could provide background to the different scenes, similar to the way the Ché character walks through the musical Evita. I know I was confused when the play jumped from the present into the past and especially at the start of the 1863 Draft Riots. The narrator could also help establish the chronology of events and even make the production more dramatic. I think the actor playing Reverend Pennington could perform this function admirably. I also suggest toning down the racial name calling, particularly if the intended audience is middle school and high school students.
In any work of art based on historical events, there is bound to be some tension between artistic license and historical accuracy. As a teacher and historian, I lean toward historical accuracy although I understand the pressure to maintain the drama and keep the audience engaged and entertained. Black ministers portrayed in the play spoke with a Southern Baptist cadence and preaching style, although they were ministers in Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. White abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan and Henry Ward Beecher were accompanied by banjo music and had an Appalachian quality to them, although they were much more austere and serious Northern Yankees from Puritan backgrounds.
There was also one major historical error. Texas entered the union as a slave state in December 1845 and was not part of the Compromise of 1850 that included the much-hated Fugitive Slave law. It was California's entry as a free state that broke the balance between free and slave states in the United States Senate, that led to Southern demands for strict enforcement of fugitive slave laws, aroused the abolitionist cause and started the country on the slope toward both Civil War and emancipation.
Despite these reservations, I enjoyed the play and hope that with revisions it can become a major force for educating the public about the role of Brooklyn and its Black and White abolitionists in promoting the cause of freedom in the United States. As it is, for middle school and high school students studying slavery in the United States and New York's role, the play provides an excellent starting point for their exploration of the past and discussion of the present.