Monday, June 24, 2013

The Abolitionist's Wife

Mary Day Brown (Samantha Chandler), Oliver (Jeremy Holien) and Mrs. Epps (Ednonya Charles)

Writers Barbara Gibson and Sky Myers have done a masterful job of telling the story of a little-known historical figure: the wife of legendary abolitionist John Brown.

John Brown was the megalomaniacal abolitionist who led the attack on Harper’s Ferry, which lead to the start of the Civil War. His life story has been told in books and movies, but little is known about his wife, Mary Day Brown, who was many years younger.
Mary and John Brown (Keith Eisner)
Mrs. Epps and Mary

Gibson, who had studied the life of John Brown, said: “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.  … 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.”

Gibson wrote the story and then gave it to Myers to make it into a play. The final version was a collaborative work.

John Brown
The Abolitionist’s Wife is the third world premiere to be presented by Olympia Family Theater. The other two were adaptations of children’s books. This is their first fully staged adult drama and the first to be staged in the OFT space on State Avenue in downtown Olympia — a building that previously was used as rehearsal space and office, now fully outfitted with stage lighting, sound board and stadium seating.

Samantha Chandler, co-founder of OFT, plays the part of Mary, and Keith Eisner plays John Brown, and they are each excellent in their interpretation of complex and unusual characters. John Brown is in many ways a one-dimensional character obsessed with ending slavery no matter the cost and an autocratic and unforgiving patriarch of his family although he claimed when they became engaged that he wanted a freethinking wife.  In one scene, whips his son Oliver (Jeremy Holien) for an offense he did not commit — refusing to listen to his defense —and then flagellates himself because he cannot do to his son what he would not do to himself. As an historical figure Brown is a man we can simultaneously admire and abhor, and Eisner captures his personality well. Mary is an even more complex character, strong and meek, tragic and joyful, and Chandler brings her to life wonderfully.

Much of the story is dramatically intense to the point viewers need relief, and relief is offered through some lovely little scene such as Brown’s courtship of Mary and their tentative wedding night when she is like a frightened school girl both longing to make love to her new husband and afraid of it, and he is admirably patient and understanding.  Also providing much needed relief is a chorus of singers and musicians who perform early American tunes and Negro spirituals between scenes.

The performers, called the Front Porch Players, are: Michael Hays, guitar, percussion and vocals; Steve Mazepa, piano, autoharp, harmonica, percussion and vocals; John Morgan, vocals and percussion; Donna Pallo-Perez, piano, flute, percussion and vocals; and Molly Robertson, vocals and percussion.

The actors also sang at times, in chorus and in a most notable from Edsonya Charles, who played the Brown’s neighbor, Mrs. Epps.

It is a joy to see performances that are entirely written, produced and performed by such inspirational local talent.

Olympia Family Theater Playspace, 112 State Ave NE, Olympia, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through July 6. $12 in advance-through Or $15 at the door.

1 comment:

Penny Lockbeam said...

I attended the play on Saturday, the first play I have ever been to. It was amazing, I laughed and cried, the characters did a wonderful job. Sky you did a great job bringing this play to life the actors had so much passion it brought me tears of joy, BRAVO!

Penny Lockbeam
Mount Vernon, WA