Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Abolitionist’s Wife premieres in Olympia

Samantha Chandler and Keith Eisner as Mary and John Brown

For the third time this season Olympia Family is presenting a world premiere, The Abolitionist’s Wife by local playwrights Barbara Gibson and Sky Myers. The other two world premieres, Wind in the Willows and Cinder Edna, were adaptations of popular children’s stories; this one is an adult drama based on the life of famed abolitionist John Brown and his wife, Mary. It is also the first fully staged performance in OFT’s Playspace in downtown Olympia.

Set in the turbulent years prior to the Civil War, the story focuses on the long-suffering spouse of the controversial abolitionist who lead the famous raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Gibson, a local poet and author, has long admired John Brown, the man who "killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights." From her work with NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality in Milwaukee in the 1960s to her ongoing civil rights activism, she has remained dedicated the pursuit of equality. As she studied Brown's life history, she decided to tell the story of John's wife, Mary Brown: their marriage, their life together, and her eventual rejection of violence. After working on this play for a number of years, she invited Sky Myers, an experienced playwright and director, to collaborate with her on bringing the project to fruition. The play is now a blend of both their efforts.

Myers has been making theater for 25 years. After graduating from Evergreen and then earning an MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen at the University of Arizona, she returned to Olympia in the 1990s to co-found  and manage The Midnight Sun Performance Space with Barbara Zelano. She had taken a hiatus from theater for a several years and now says she is thrilled to return to the world of theater.

Gibson says: “I have always admired John Brown: his many years of fighting to abolish slavery, his skill at enlisting others who had money and influence to aid in the struggle, and his absolute and personal dedication to the cause. A book by David S. Reynolds about John  Brown which has as its subtitle: ‘The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights’ renewed my interest in Brown, especially in light of my experiences in the civil rights movement in the '60s.  As I read more about John, I began to wonder about his wife, Mary. I knew that she was a woman whom John both loved and respected.  I visited their cabin in N. Elba, near Lake Placid, New York, where I got a vivid picture of their simple way of life. And eventually I began to imagine what happened between this man, obsessed with a righteous cause, and his wife, who bore him 13 children, several of whom died as infants, and who came to oppose his use of violence after his experiences in the bloody Kansas wars. Mary and John's life together came to a tragic end as a result of the unsuccessful raid he and his comrades waged at Harper's Ferry, for which he was executed by hanging.  But as we know from the popular old ballad, ‘John Brown's Body Lies A'mouldring in the Grave... But His Truth Goes Marching On...’  And Mary Brown's dedication to non-violence, and her interest in the independence of women, are issues of importance that remain unresolved today.”

Meyers says: “In mid-2010 Barbara had a draft done when she contacted me about essentially, ‘script doctoring.’ I read her draft of Scenes from the Life of Mary Brown and came up with a written plan/outline to strengthen the dramatic action throughout and develop cohesive character arcs for each of the main characters. The new outline called for writing a few new scenes and rewrites of a several others. Six months later when I contacted Barbara to see how the rewrite was going, she asked me to be more involved — to do the rewrite based on the things we both agreed the script needed. I began rewriting it in 2011, and we worked on it together on and off for about a year. Once we had a new draft completed, we held a public reading at the library with local actors and friends. It was at this time that I fully realized the power of the work, and the interest that everybody had in it. It was also clear that our voices had melded and the script felt and sounded like the work of a single person. We were both thrilled! Samantha Chandler and Keith Eisner were at that first reading. Both expressed interest in acting in the play and were later cast in the two leads. Samantha approached Olympia Family Theater where she is Managing Director, and they agreed to tag it onto the end of their regular season.  Barbara felt strongly that I should direct the play, so I agreed.”

Meyers also says: “Mary Brown struggled with issues that hold relevance to contemporary audiences, and I focused my attention on finding those bridges of experience. Mary questions whether violence is ever justified, stands up to racial injustice, and deals with those who return from battle traumatized. She endures impoverishment and the death of her children to violence. She asks whether or not any cause is worth that. She strives to reconcile her own beliefs with her husband's religious zealotry, and ultimately, she finds her own way. This is a great story and one that allowed us to be more imaginative. The historical facts became the context in which we imagined the play. It is, after all, imaginary.”

In addition to Chandler and Eisner, the cast members are: Sara Geiger and Hannah Sampson as John Brown’s daughters, Jeremy Holien as his son, Edsonya Charles as Mrs. Epps (free Negro and friend to Mary), Debbie Sampson as the famous Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, Reneeka Massey-Jones as the runaway slave Savannah, Rick Pearlstein as a bounty hunter, and Tom Lockhart as a Southern man.

Musical accompaniment by the five-piece ensemble of Steve Mazepa, Molly Robertson, Michael Hays, Donna Pallo-Perez, and John Morgan will feature original arrangements of Negro spirituals and popular songs of the era.

The Abolitionist’s Wife opens Friday night, June 21 at 8 p.m. and runs through Saturday, July 6. There will be a pay-what-you-can performance Sunday, June 23 at 8 p.m. Performances take place at the Olympia Family Theater Playspace, 112 State Ave NE, Olympia.

Director- Sky Myers
Set/Lights by Jill Carter
Costumes Kathy Anderson
Sound Design John Manini

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