«The Impact of Socially Engaged Theatre Across Communities: A Tale of Two Slave Cabins Harrison Long Abstract What happens when one controversial text ...»
He reminded us that even the most virtuous human institutions are subject to human failing. We were also reminded throughout the process how individuals and communities can have very difArticle Title Number One 141 ferent responses to similar events. Our first and final community residencies in Newton County and White County vividly illustrate this disparity.
Figure 2. Kitty’s cottage.
Photo by Melanie Martin Long.
Newton County, just outside metropolitan Atlanta, is only a few miles away from my hometown of Conyers, Georgia. In October 2011, the very month we arrived for our first tour performance, the community was embroiled in debate over the release of The Accidental Slaveowner by former Oxford College anthropology professor Mark Auslander. The book became a major topic of our postshow discussion.
On December 4, 1841, an enslaved woman known as Miss Kitty, owned by the Methodist bishop James Osgood Andrew, was offered her freedom or the option to remain Andrew’s slave “as free as the laws of the state would permit” (Auslander, 2011, para. 2). When Kitty chose to remain, Bishop Andrew built a small house for her where she lived in comparative freedom. Three years later, Bishop Andrew’s ownership of slaves caused a split between Northern and Southern factions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which lasted 142 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement until 1939. In the 1930s, Miss Kitty’s Cottage was moved from Emory University’s original campus at Oxford College to Salem Campground, a few miles away. There it remained until 1994, when the cottage was returned to Oxford (Auslander, 2011).
The Salem Camp Meeting at Salem Campground was founded in 1828 and is one of the oldest annual religious revivals in the United States (Salem Camp Meeting, 2014). As a youth, I camped at “Salem” for one week every summer, attending services twice a day and eating fried chicken in between. The tent where I slept each night was 50 yards from Miss Kitty’s Cottage. I had grown up hearing the story of the benevolent bishop and his loyal slave. Time and time again, I had been reminded that Bishop Andrew was not a proponent of slavery, nor was he responsible for the divided church. I can’t remember who told me the story, but it’s been carved into my memory with the kind of reverence reserved only for sacred history. Even then, I sensed the story’s tragic, romantic undertones. As children, we told each other tales about the ghost of Miss Kitty. Some of us even swore we had seen her pining in the cottage window late at night.
When the cottage was returned to Oxford and restored as a small heritage museum, however, many African Americans refused to visit the site. The quaint story from my childhood about love between master and slave was under dispute by Oxford’s African
American residents. As Professor Auslander explains:
Many of them had heard from their elders that Miss Kitty had been the coerced mistress of Bishop Andrew and had been afforded few options of actual freedom.
As one elderly African American woman rhetorically asked my class, “Why do you think Bishop Andrew built that little house for Miss Kitty just behind the big house, away from the other slaves? Just so she could be comfortable?” (Auslander, 2011, para. 4) Further questions are raised by the fact that Miss Kitty was buried in the Andrew family plot, the only African American interred within the white section of the old city cemetery. In contrast to the African American supporters of the slave cabin in Sautee Nacoochee, one Oxford resident stated: “For us, this building is a place of violation, not of love” (Auslander, 2011, para. 6).
Having worried for some time about the show’s response off campus, I was relieved when Newton County audiences filled the cavernous high school auditorium with enthusiastic applause. That Article Title Number One 143 night, during the talkback, I saw people I had known for more than 30 years—friends, family members, members of the church my father had pastored a few miles away. Also present were two of my uncles, both stalwart members of the Newton County community. It was interesting to see them argue opposite sides of the controversial issue. Many in the audience felt it was important to debunk the ridiculous fairy tale of the virtuous Bishop Andrew and his loyal Miss Kitty. Why not examine history more realistically, just as scholars have examined the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings? Others viewed Auslander as an academic rabble-rouser needlessly stirring up conflict in a community he no longer inhabited in order to achieve professional notoriety.
I wondered if the latter sentiment had been delivered as a subtle admonishment to me, the rebellious preacher’s kid returned home.
Unsurprisingly, our passionate discussion didn’t bring forth any new evidence regarding the relationship between Bishop Andrew and Miss Kitty, whose real name was Catherine Boyd (Auslander, 2011). It did, however, reveal the degree to which each of us can become attached to our preferred versions of history. As the discussion’s moderator, I tried to remain neutral. But internally, like many who participated in the discussion, I wanted to defend the bishop. What made this story important enough to repeat generation after generation, important enough to preserve an old slave cabin as a sacred monument to the “good” slaveholder? Why was I so attached to the story of the benevolent master?
As someone with strong ties to the area, to United Methodism, and to Salem Campground, I felt that questioning this story called my identity into question. My birthright as a White, straight, Christian, Southern man is directly related to a narrative of entitlement. I want to believe that the traditions on which my social position rests are noble ones. Without that, my conscience cannot escape the responsibility of working for social change. This realization is not a remarkable one. I understood all of this before returning to Newton County. But for the first time, I felt personally implicated as the beneficiary of an unjust system.
Several people in the audience that night had a similar experience. Former Rockdale County commissioner Hank Wise responded: “Through Huck we were forced to look inward again at the role racism may still play in our relationships” (personal communication, February 10, 2012). Shelly Yeatman, a Newton County elementary school teacher, wrote: “This subject is too important to be swept under the rug of a ‘time heals all’ concept” (personal communication, February 11, 2012).
144 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement Another point of interest for the Newton County crowd was our depiction of the church. Most of the people who stayed for the talkback knew my father. Some were also aware that I remained active in the United Methodist Church. Yet in Splittin’ the Raft, all the preachers are portrayed as hypocrites and purveyors of bigotry.
One audience member asked actor Rob Hadaway what it was like to play the White preacher who gently explains to a slave girl: “God designed us to be His thinkers, and you to be the workers!” (Kaiser, 2007, p. 31).
Rob confessed how challenging the role had been for him. The difficulty stemmed from the preacher’s use of the Bible to justify slavery. In order to play the role effectively, Rob had to find a way to empathize with a character whose feelings about race conflicted with his own. Rob explained: “I had to figure out a way that good people, God-fearing people, believed slavery was okay.” Then he continued: “As a gay Christian...” (R. Hadaway, personal communication, June 15, 2012).
My heart stopped. Inside me something screamed: “Stop! You can’t go there! I’ve known these people for over 30 years, trust me… they are not ready to hear this!” Fortunately, I restrained myself, took a deep breath, and slowly sat on the edge of the stage.
Rob went on to explain that what helped him empathize with the bigoted preacher was the compassion he had developed for fellow Christians who consider his sexual orientation an abomination. “In my parents’ generation, people used the Bible to discredit interracial marriages,” Rob said, “and they’re doing the same thing with our community today” (R. Hadaway, personal communication, June 15, 2012).
When I looked out at the audience, I could see people, many of whom I have loved for decades, take a breath of recognition. I don’t have any illusions that these folks became gay rights advocates instantaneously, but I am certain that some who were in the audience that night moved an inch closer to tolerance and understanding. Theatre can teach because it entertains. As Mary Poppins used to say: “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down” (Walsh, 1964).
Months later, I asked Rob about that night. He thought for a moment, then interpreted the experience as a biblical parable, saying: “We were just planting seeds. Either they take it and grow something better, or the crows are going to eat it and take it away” (personal communication, June 15, 2012).
Article Title Number One 145 Figure 3. Re-enactor Joseph McGill performs in front of the African American Heritage Site, Sautee Nachoochee. Photo by David Greear.
Sautee Nacoochee “The play made the audience think about the realities of slavery and what it meant to those who were slaves.”
- Billy Chism, editor, White County News (personal communication, May 11, 2012) On November 11, after a morning show at Lumpkin County High School, we loaded up the truck and drove northeast over 33 miles of winding, rural mountain roads to our final stop. The Sautee Nacoochee Center is an Appalachian cultural oasis, known for its excellent arts programming and its superior folk pottery museum.
The Center is housed in a beautifully renovated “old White school” where many of the local Whites attended grade school before the days of integration. Understandably, the structure continues to evoke strong feelings from both White and Black residents. As Caroline Crittenden points out: “There are many people in Bean Creek who will not walk into that building” (personal communication, May 11, 2012).
Across the road stands a little white church (in both senses of the word), as well as a large farm still owned by a descendant of the slave-owning Williams family. A mile or so north is the bed and breakfast where our ensemble was to stay the night. The original owner of the old house was one Moses Harshaw, known as “the meanest man who ever lived” because of his brutal treatment of slaves. Locals claim his tombstone bears the inscription “Died and Gone to Hell” (Stovall House, 2013). The surrounding countryside is breathtakingly beautiful.
146 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement The SNC theatre is a lovely but tiny 80-seat proscenium with a performance area one eighth the size of what we were accustomed to; our set simply wouldn’t fit on the stage. We had to cut some of the scenic elements and alter the staging, but by then we were used to last-minute adjustments. Despite the grueling schedule, the strenuous move from one venue to another, and the severe space limitations, there was electricity in the room. When curtain time finally arrived, the company was primed for a big event.
People poured into the theatre. With them came the kind of festival atmosphere seldom experienced at more cosmopolitan venues. I was pleased to see a wide cross-section of locals represented. Some of the old landed White families were there, along with those who had bought vacation homes in the area. There were people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. In attendance was Billy Chism, the dedicated and folksy editor of The White County News who had helped get the word out about the performance. Most of all, it was exciting to see members of the Bean Creek community, some of whom hadn’t set foot in the building for a long time. The performance that night was among our most powerful. After the applause died down, only a few people left the room. The audience needed to talk.
Living With Santa Claus The vigorous postshow discussion went on for more than an hour and a half and covered the history of racial tension in the area.
White and Black people, rich and poor, male and female dared to share their personal stories. The student actors were practically delirious from exhaustion, but they invested themselves in the discussion; it was clear we had the opportunity to do something good.
People who wouldn’t typically find themselves in the same room with one another were having a serious discussion about race, class, and gender.
At one point, a local White woman became agitated. She couldn’t understand why we were going on and on about slavery, something that had happened so long ago. “Sure. Slavery was bad and all, but we fixed all that years ago, right?” Strangely, she kept using the phrase “Am I living with Santa Claus or...” before each of her pointed questions. For example (and I paraphrase): “Am I living with Santa Claus or hasn’t that all been dealt with? Am I living with Santa Claus or are those people just avoiding responsibility? Am I living with Santa Claus or are they simply trying to live off the tax payers rather than pay their own way?” Article Title Number One 147 The air went out of the room. We were stunned into silence.
Even the eloquent Billy Chism, who had taken the woman on, was suddenly at a loss for words. I was embarrassed for the woman and for all of us. Most of all, I was ashamed that members of the Bean Creek community had to hear such insensitivity and ignorance after reaching out in good faith. How could someone hear so many graphic stories of discrimination from her own neighbors and still miss the fact that everything hadn’t been made right? Then, when several of us were on the verge of exploding or shutting down, something changed: Bean Creek resident Sabrina Dorsey smiled at the woman. With humor and with gentleness, she spoke: “Ma’am, with all due respect… you’re living with Santa Claus” (S. Dorsey, personal communication, November 11, 2011).
The room erupted with good-natured laughter and suddenly the woman began to relax and really listen. I’m not suggesting “Mrs.