«The Impact of Socially Engaged Theatre Across Communities: A Tale of Two Slave Cabins Harrison Long Abstract What happens when one controversial text ...»
Santa Claus” underwent a full conversion that night, but just as we had experienced in Newton County, there had been a clear turning point. By the end of the conversation, she understood something about the experience of her Black neighbors that she hadn’t considered before.
Conversations in a Slave Cabin The Sautee Nacoochee experience was so powerful that I returned 6 months later for a follow-up interview. Participants included Caroline Crittenden, Andy Allen, Sabrina Dorsey, Lawrence Dorsey, and Leona Dorsey. (The Dorsey family has lived in Bean Creek for five generations or more.) Also present were Todd and Kathy Blandin, who had left the SNC for a position at nearby Piedmont College; Denise Hartzell and Hill Jordan, a couple who had moved from metro Atlanta to Sautee Nacoochee; Billy Chism, editor of The White County News; and Candice Dyer, freelance journalist and childhood friend of Sabrina Dorsey. Candice and Sabrina were a rarity in the area because their lasting friendship had transcended racial barriers. As Chism put it: “There are really two distinct communities.… There are not many people having the kind of conversation we’re having right now” (B. Chism, personal communication, May 11, 2012).
Given the controversy in Newton County, I was eager to hear how the African American Heritage Site had been received in the community. Caroline Crittenden suggested that we actually hold our discussion inside the renovated slave cabin just a hundred yards from the building where we had performed. Soon after we all 148 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement settled in, Caroline built a fire in the fireplace, causing our shadows to dance on the rough-hewn walls. We began by discussing some of the interesting things that had gone on in the previous months.
In contrast to Miss Kitty’s Cottage, the cabin in Sautee Nacoochee had become a semisacred space, set aside for important conversations. “This and the church,” Andy Allen told me (personal communication, May 11, 2012). As a preacher’s son and theatre actor, I knew precisely what she meant. We go to church or enter the theatre in order to have heightened experiences. Such rituals give us permission to examine life more deeply than we might in other locations. In these sacred spaces, there is an increased responsibility to tell the truth and hear the truth.
The weekend before my return, they had invited Joe McGill to bring his “Slave Dwelling Project” to the site. McGill, a program officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a descendant of slaves, sleeps in slave dwellings across the country promoting the preservation of these important historical structures.
“We have preserved the mansions, but there has been very little attention paid to the people who lived in the little houses—their sweat and toil made the big houses possible” (Chism, 2012, p. C1).
Dressed as members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an all-Black Union army regiment formed during the Civil War, McGill and storyteller James Brown recounted the battle of Morris Island for 130 locals gathered on the lawn of the newly renovated dwelling. Bean Creek residents Lawrence Dorsey and Stacey Allen took an active part in the event, donning slave clothing and spending the night in the cabin. The reenactors applauded community members for their restoration efforts: “If the place is not there, you can easily deny the history,” McGill said. “And a place is a lot better than a sign that reads: ‘Here once stood…’” (Chism, 2012, p. C1). It was thrilling to realize how many important conversations the cabin had already made possible.
Then I asked them to recall our discussion with “Mrs. Santa
Caroline Crittenden: I recall Billy rising to his feet, literally jumping from his seat! I thought he was going to accost the poor woman.
auction block, you can see it on television or watch a movie but it’s not the same as seeing it live. You can almost reach out and touch these people. And then to have someone say: “it wasn’t so bad.” Candice Dyer: I heard someone say that in the beauty shop two days ago. (B. Chism and C. Dyer, personal communication, May 11, 2012) I asked Sabrina Dorsey what she had been thinking during the “Mrs.
Santa Claus” debate:
I think everybody was going around the issue. Nobody wanted to tell her, “Wake up! They were selling 13-yearold kids away from their mamma and daddy! Wake up! They were beating the breath out of a living being.
Wake up! … To her it wasn’t real. But to us it is very real.
Thank God times have changed and we don’t have to go through that same kind of racism. It’s a different kind of racism. (S. Dorsey, personal communication, May 11, 2012) We began discussing the different “versions” of history each of
us had been taught:
We were taught the Civil War ad nauseam. It was instilled that we White southerners were the victims of tyranny.… My first week of college my political science professor showed us the footage from Alabama with the fire hoses and the dogs. And I cried for hours. And I thought: If I don’t know something as important as this, what else don’t I know? (C. Dyer, personal communication, May 11, 2012) I was aware that several of the people with whom I was talking had been a part of the decision to invite us to perform. Over the past months, I had often wondered how those conversations had unfolded. It took far more courage for the SNC to welcome us than one of the more timorous suburban venues. Why did they do it?
Denise Hartzell, who ultimately became an enthusiastic supporter of the production, had initially been concerned about the reactions the play might provoke.
150 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement Denise Hartzell: I was worried that it was going to offend people. I was definitely apprehensive about the language used in the play. I was more concerned about the play’s use of the infamous “N-word”… more than anything else. My experiences in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, teaching primarily minority students, left me hypersensitive to their reactions. Happily, Kathy was right, and I was wrong. The scene with the auction was one of the most worrisome pieces.
Billy Chism: Who were you afraid of offending? Why would it offend White people, except for the fact that we did it? (B. Chism and D. Hartzell, personal communication, May 11, 2012) That moment, something occurred to me. The decision to block us from performing had always been made by White people.
Usually, the implied rationale had been to avoid offending African Americans. Like Denise Hartzell, I worried about this myself. But Chism’s question helped me to understand why we White folks are so uncomfortable at times: We are afraid to examine what our own people have done. Sometimes we hide this fear behind our attempts to “protect” African Americans. Although contemporary people don’t often admit it, we are threatened as easily by the writings of Frederick Douglass as we are by those of Mark Twain. If we truthfully examine where we’ve come from, we can’t avoid looking at the truth of where we are today. And if we do that, there’s no way to avoid seeing our responsibility for the future.
Sabrina Dorsey: I know some [African American] people. Racism hurts them so bad they think this cabin is a really bad thing. We get into arguments. I have to explain that this isn’t so much about the cabin. We want people to understand that we are all equal and to remind them that this really happened. We want people to wake up. We’re just human beings. We’re all the same.
Author: Is it good to tell the truth, even when it’s ugly?
right. Everything is eventually just going to work itself out. Some things in life… we’ve got to face them. We’ve got to make them be all right. It doesn’t just work out on its own. We have to make it. We have to face it. (S. Dorsey, personal communication, May 11, 2012) On May 21, 2012, only 10 days after our conversation in the slave cabin, one of the local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan made national news by applying to adopt a highway only a few miles away in neighboring Union County (Abbey & Castillo, 2012).
Figure 4. The full company of Splittin’ the Raft conducts a post-show discussion.
From left to right: Shannon Sparks, John Stewart, Rob Hadaway, Annie Power. Photo by Raven DeGarmo.
Lessons Learned and Lessons Remembered Splittin’ the Raft provided many practical examples of the theories we often discuss in the rehearsal hall or in our university classrooms. For the first time, most of the student company members experienced theatre as an effective tool for social change. Rarely do artists witness such positive, tangible, and immediate results from their work. But our discoveries weren’t merely artistic. Each of us emerged with a deeper understanding of the roles we play on the academic stage and in the larger communities we inhabit.
Socially engaged theatre creates a unique forum for constructive dialogue across communities between students and teachers, between performers and audiences. Wherever we went, Splittin’ the Raft prompted productive discussions about race, gender, economic equity, theatre, literature, music, and the social circumstances that inspire socially-engaged works. To my knowledge, none of our host organizations received negative feedback after we performed.
On the contrary, we received a flood of positive comments from students, educators, community leaders, theatre professionals, and residents of the communities we visited. But our experiment in 152 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement creative public engagement required a great deal of courage from everyone involved.
Sometimes in order to overcome our prejudices, we have to let the ugly stuff come out into the open. We have to acknowledge what we really think and feel. Before that can happen, we have to be relaxed enough and trust enough to let down our defenses. Only then can we risk being influenced by “others.” That’s what theatre can do but often doesn’t do.
As Berthold Brecht came to realize, we must entertain before we teach. When audiences engage in the act of play, they are free to examine social issues on a more objective level. But play also helps us experience on a more human level. That’s when we can apply what we observe on the stage to our own social contexts.
At first, my having used personal connections as a way into these communities felt like an unfair advantage. But later I realized it was precisely my status as an insider that opened the door to constructive social commentary. The fact that these were “my people” meant that whatever social problems we uncovered were also my own. Audiences relaxed when they understood we were not there to judge them any more than we were there to judge ourselves. From the very beginning, this project was an exercise in self-inquiry. Audiences influenced our thoughts about the work as much as (or possibly more than) we influenced theirs. Ensemble members provided incredible support to one another, making it possible to confront our own contributions to the web of social injustice.
Finally, these experiences remind us about the importance of place. Critical public discourse often requires physical delineation. Crossing the threshold of a church, a theatre, a courthouse, or a renovated slave cabin prepares us for a heightened experience, the kind of experience we can’t receive in the ordinary places of life, the kind of experience necessary to bring about incremental social change. Questioning our views about the past is a difficult, often painful process, but an essential one. It isn’t enough to know the facts. Sometimes it becomes necessary to construct physical reminders that help us reexperience them. The slave cabins in Oxford and Sautee Nacoochee elicited widely different responses, but both have inspired important public discussions.
Frederick Douglass’s words are no less inspiring today than they were over a hundred years ago. Likewise, Twain’s masterpiece is more than well-crafted literature; it is an entertaining reflection of the American conscience. Huck Finn is provocative because it Article Title Number One 153 reminds us where we have fallen short of the American promise of freedom. “Liberty and justice for all” is not something we achieved long ago. It is a living principle and must be nurtured like any living organism. Therefore it is necessary, and occasionally uncomfortable, to examine our actions in light of all we claim to believe.
Thankfully, our greatest artists and orators make it possible, even entertaining, to remember who we are.
Note. The author has received express written permission to use all quotes. This study was IRB approved.
References Abbey, M., & Castillo, M. (2012). KKK wants ACLU help to adopt highway.
CNN U.S. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/14/us/ georgia-kkk-highway/ African American Heritage Site. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.snca.org/ bp/heritage/heritageSplash.php Auslander, M. (2011, September 2). New book explores the Methodist mystery of Miss Kitty. North Georgia Advocate. Retrieved from http://www.
ngumc.org/newsdetail/70255 Chism, B. (2012, May 3). Retelling of a Civil War battle by “The Other Side.” White County News, p. C1.
Douglas County, Georgia. (2014). About us. In Celebrate Douglas County, Georgia [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.celebratedouglascounty.
com/about/ Kaiser, S. (2007). Splittin’ the raft. Ashland, OR: Scott Kaiser.
Mumford, M. (2009). Bertolt brecht. New York, NY: Routledge.
Salem Camp Meeting. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.salemcampmeeting.org/ Schneider, D. (Producer). (2011, March 20). Huckleberry Finn and the N-word debate [Television series episode]. In 60 Minutes. New York, NY: CBS.
Stovall House. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.stovallhouse.com Walsh, B. (Producer), & Stevenson, R. (Director). (1964). Mary Poppins [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Productions.
About the Author Harrison Long is interim associate dean, artistic director, and associate professor of theatre and performance studies in the College of the Arts, Kennesaw State University. His research interests include socially engaged theatre, epic theatre, and the Stanislavski system. He received his MFA in acting from Southern Methodist University.
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