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«The Impact of Socially Engaged Theatre Across Communities: A Tale of Two Slave Cabins Harrison Long Abstract What happens when one controversial text ...»

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© Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement,Volume 19, Number 1, p. 135, (2015)

Copyright © 2015 by the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. ISSN 1534-6104

The Impact of Socially Engaged Theatre Across

Communities: A Tale of Two Slave Cabins

Harrison Long


What happens when one controversial text meets another in

performance? How do diverse audiences from rural and metropolitan areas respond to powerful yet provocative material?

The Kennesaw State University Department of Theatre and Performance Studies sought to answer these questions with Splittin’ the Raft, a dramatic adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as interpreted by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the ensemble toured seven North Georgia communities, ranging from inner-city schools to rural mountain towns.

The struggles faced and the conversations encountered prove the lasting legacy of American slavery. Socially engaged theatre can create a unique forum for constructive dialogue within communities. This article highlights the healing conversations inspired by this student production and explores some widely contrasting responses to renovated slave dwellings in two Georgia communities, Oxford and Sautee Nacoochee.

Figure 1. John Stewart plays Frederick Douglass/Jim.

Photo by Robert Pack.

Introduction What happens when one controversial text meets another in performance? How do diverse audiences from rural and metropolitan areas respond to powerful yet provocative material? The 136 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement Department of Theatre and Performance Studies within Kennesaw State University (KSU) set out to explore just that with its Frederick Douglass/Huck Finn Arts Education Initiative. The project was called Splittin’ the Raft. It was a dramatic adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as interpreted by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This ambitious production, adapted by Scott Kaiser, received an Arts Education in American Communities Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

This grant funded a tour of seven North Georgia communities, ranging from inner-city Atlanta schools to rural mountain arts centers. Splittin’ the Raft employed “epic theatre” strategies, techniques associated with Bertolt Brecht’s theatre of social commentary, to inspire a new understanding of the present through an examination of the past (Mumford, 2009). The production featured African American spirituals, songs by Stephen Foster, and original compositions for fiddle and banjo. Audiences included high school students, educators, community leaders, and people of all ages. After every performance, the company led a postshow discussion highlighting current social issues and the dramatic techniques used to create social awareness. As the project director, I taught free performance workshops to help local students explore the performance techniques featured in the production. The production website for students and educators featured historical research, a study guide, class activities, production photos, director’s notes, and a documentary film about the creative process. Splittin’ the Raft reached over 3,000 people from across the southeastern United States. What follows is an examination of our experiences in two Georgia communities, Oxford in Newton County and Sautee Nacoochee in White County.

Courageous Partners Wanted Ours was the first production of Splittin’ the Raft to be staged in the Deep South. Months of struggling to arrange tour dates taught me why. Several of the community organizations I initially contacted signed on immediately. Over the next few months, however, most of those who had eagerly agreed to host the production withdrew, fearing the same kind of backlash Twain’s novel has provoked since its initial publication in 1885. A number of school districts across the country ban Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it uses the “N-word” well over two hundred times (Schneider, 2011).

I realized, of course, that the novel was controversial. Still, I was surprised by the level of apprehension we encountered from those who claimed they agreed with what we were “trying to do” but who Article Title Number One 137

feared political backlash. One school administrator put it this way:

“We’re just not ready for Huck Finn.” Despite opposition, we believed our production could be meaningful. Splittin’ the Raft would examine the atrocities of the past and, in the process, uncover some valuable insights about the current age. Given the volatility of the subject matter, we understood how important it would be to prepare audiences for the complex questions the production would raise. To that end, we created a project website, held postshow discussions (“talkbacks”) after every performance, and offered free performance workshops to all our host organizations. The months to come taught us a great deal about the value and challenges associated with socially engaged theatre.

The “Good Old Boy Network” My family has lived in North Georgia for several generations.

My father, both of my grandfathers, and my uncles were all United Methodist ministers, which meant they frequently moved around the North Georgia area and were considered prominent members of the communities they served. In short, my family has “connections” in this part of the state.

Like many ministers’ kids, I rebelled. As a young adult, I had no intention of using family ties to further my career as a theatre artist. But now my neck was on the line. I had spent a good deal of political capital drumming up support for Splittin’ the Raft within the university. If the project failed, my professional credibility would suffer. As desperation set in, I began to see the “good old boy network” as my best strategy for saving face and in the process, delivering some valuable art to the communities where I was raised. Right or wrong, this is often how things get done in the South. Once I made the decision to reach out to family friends, it didn’t take long to make contact with someone willing to sign on without fretting about the play’s content or the political fallout it might cause. When one local arts organization was courageous enough to give us a chance, it made other connections a little easier, but we still weren’t out of the woods.

Over the summer, I mentioned my struggle to arrange tour dates to a friend who had played the role of Huck in Kaiser’s original workshop of the play. She suggested I contact Kathy Blandin, executive director of the Sautee Nacoochee Center (SNC), an arts center in White County, Georgia. The idea of performing in the rural mountains of Northeast Georgia was especially appealing 138 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement because of the region’s reputation for racial tension. The local school bus system, for example, wasn’t integrated until 1989, 35 years after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education, which dismantled segregation in the schools. As more than one White County resident put it, “The name of our county speaks for itself.” For obvious reasons, I was skeptical about landing a tour date in Sautee Nacoochee.

Under Blandin’s leadership, however, the SNC had recently begun a courageous initiative to build bridges between its two very separate local communities, one White and one Black. Today much of Sautee Nacoochee is still owned by the descendants of the slave-owning Williams family. Only a few miles down the road stands Bean Creek, a community largely inhabited by the descendants of slaves (C. Crittenden, personal communication, May 11, 2012).

Coincidentally, our proposed tour dates corresponded with the opening of a newly renovated slave cabin on the Center’s premises. The African American Heritage Site, as it was dubbed, was established to interpret the history of slavery in Nacoochee Valley, to heal a divided community, and to educate residents about their community’s past. Bean Creek resident Lena Belle Dorsey put it this way: “If we don’t keep this history alive and save what’s left, our children and grandchildren will never know the history and hardship of our ancestors” (African American Heritage Site, 2014).

With the help of Andy Allen, another Bean Creek resident, Caroline Crittenden worked for over a decade to restore and relocate the only remaining slave cabin in Northeast Georgia.

“My husband is a direct descendant of E. P. Williams, the slave owner who owned much of the land around here,” said Crittenden.

“Andy is a direct descendant of the slaves owned by the Williams family.” When I asked what had inspired their Herculean efforts, Crittenden replied: “The black community has been deeply disappointed, disenfranchised, exploited, and betrayed. There’s a long and painful history of discrimination and disappointment, some of which is relatively recent” (C. Crittenden, personal communication, May 11, 2012).

Kathy Blandin, who had been supportive of the project, thought our production might be a good way to celebrate the opening of the restored cabin and to initiate some constructive dialogue. (Some members of the Bean Creek community hadn’t set foot in the Center for years.) Given the volatile local history, Blandin knew that every constituency had to take part in the decision to invite us.

According to Andy Allen, “It takes years to build relationships of Article Title Number One 139 trust, and that’s what we have done here. But it only takes a minute to tear them down” (personal communication, May 11, 2012).

Blandin was also aware of the serious problems the production could cause if people misunderstood its intent. In the past, the Center had hosted a few well-intentioned artists whose work had actually stifled communication, causing further damage between the White and Black communities. “There is this feeling that, as an artist I am going to do this to you rather than with you,” Blandin explained. “Come with me. It’s a very different perspective” (personal communication, May 11, 2012). On the morning of August 24,

Kathy e-mailed me:

Harrison, Sorry for the delay, I met with the group yesterday afternoon and they are slightly concerned about the strong racial language even though it is historically accurate and appropriate within the context of the play. There was one more person they wanted to have read the play last night and I am waiting on word from her this morning… One way or the other I will let you know before COB today.

Thank you for your patience.

Kathy (personal communication, August 24, 2011) I braced myself for another disappointment. Later I found out that Andy Allen had cast the deciding vote of support, saying: “It will be a learning experience” (A. Allen, personal communication, May 11, 2012). My shoulders dropped inches as I breathed a sigh of relief.

At long last, our tour dates were set! The hard part was over! Now all I had to do was find the right actors and pull the production together. The easy part had begun, right?

The cast of four was balanced evenly between men and women, with two Caucasian actors and two African Americans. Annie Power, who played Huck, was the youngest. A waifish, girly sophomore with a background in musical theatre, Annie drew on her extensive dance training to believably create the comportment of an 11-year-old boy. John Stewart doubled as Frederick Douglass and the escaped slave Jim. Like me, John was the son of a preacher, an upbringing that helped him approach Douglass’s lofty rhetoric.

John transferred to KSU after taking time off from college when a loved one unexpectedly died. Like many who experience tragedy early in life, John possessed special empathy and insight. These qualities infused his work with a power seldom seen in young actors. In fact, in 2012, he was one of only four college actors in 140 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement the nation recognized at the Kennedy Center for his “outstanding performance” in our production of Splittin’ the Raft.

Rob Hadaway and Shannon Sparks played the other 28 roles.

In some ways, their job was the most challenging because it required them to shift seamlessly between characters of different ages, classes, races, and even genders! Rob is a seasoned theatre performer in his early 50s who returned to college after touring with Ringling Brothers and a stint as a rodeo clown. Rob’s maturity, professionalism, and good humor would prove invaluable in the challenging months that lay ahead. Shannon, a talented and intelligent 30-something with a glorious voice, had never performed in a play. Despite her great natural gifts, there was a lot to learn. But Shannon worked tirelessly and ultimately turned in an outstanding performance.

In all honesty, the rehearsal process was the most challenging any of us had ever encountered. There was no way to explore the material without bumping into our own finely tuned prejudices.

I’m proud that we supported each other through all the embarrassment, anger, and shame. We also found moments of great humor and joy. After an intensely emotional and rewarding creative process, our campus performances were a resounding success.

It’s one thing to perform controversial material within the cocoon of a campus black box theatre. People expect to find challenging art on a college campus. It’s quite another to invade schools and communities, where we would expose high school students and other unlikely theatregoers to socially critical work. The previous months had taught me to expect powder keg reactions.

Across Communities In every school or community we visited, at least one local issue emerged whose origins were connected to the consequences of slavery. For example, as a Georgia native, I was surprised to learn that Douglas County had originally been named for Frederick Douglass. During the Jim Crow era, however, local officials defiantly renamed the county for Stephen Douglas (one s), who had opposed Lincoln on emancipation (Douglas County, Georgia, 2014). After our Chattahoochee Hills performance, a local minister spoke eloquently about the Christian church’s history of alternately opposing and contributing to discriminatory practices.

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