An African American high school girl opens what seems to be an ancient family trunk.
The objects in it evoke dreams in which she speaks with a forebear as he heads to Ohio to escape slavery. On the road with him, she ultimately learns lessons about preserving her humanity in a white world that can’t seem to stop suspecting her of something.
Welcome to Freedom Flight, the new Mad River Theaterworks one-act play with music in which the Addison White story serves as backdrop for exploring slavery’s legacy.
The play premieres at 7 p.m. Friday at the Foundry Theater on Corry Street Yellow Springs, then immediately sets out on a two-month 20-state tour before young audiences. Tickets are $10 for adults and can be purchased at Freedom Flight - Antioch College or at the door. There is no charge for those 17 and younger.
The performance will mark both the theater company’s emergence from a COVID shutdown and further development of story it told for decades in Freedom Bound.
Set in the dark years of the Fugitive Slave Law, the earlier play recounts how White escaped his Kentucky owner, the dramatic fight and legal battle over his recapture, and the ultimate purchase of his freedom by people of the Mechanicsburg area.
Theaterworks Managing Director Chris Westhoff said in approaching Freedom Flight, “One of the things Kathy and I shared immediately is that we did not want to tell this story through the perspective of Udney Hyde,” as the previous play had.
Kathy is retired Wittenberg University librarian Kathy Schulz, who has considered White “an American hero, like Paul Revere, Davey Crocket and Johnny Appleseed” since she came across the briefest account of his story nearly 40 years ago in the basement of the university’s Thomas Library.
She subsequently has “read everything in print about Addison White,” information she put to use in the lead chapter of her new book, “The Underground Railroad in Ohio” (The History Press), which will be released Monday. Schulz, who emphasizes the central role African Americans played in the underground railroad, as the play does.
She will discuss the book and sign copies in presentations at 2 p.m. Saturdays Jan. 14 and 22 in the Springfield and Mechanicsburg public libraries, two events on a 17-stop Ohio tour.
Schulz forwarded pertinent portions of her research to Theaterworks with the encouragement of John Booth, a Yellow Springs resident and great-great grandson of Addison White. With sister Shari, of Springfield, Booth donated a trunk that belonged to White’s second wife to the Gammon House Underground Railroad museum in Springfield.
African American playwright Daniel Carleton came across the story during online research and made the trunk and its contents the launchpad for Freedom Flight.
Carleton’s script includes two John Booth real-life anecdotes from his childhood in Mechanicsburg. One involves Booth at age 7 borrowing an actual Union soldier cap from the trunk to play war. Another recalls an aunt who complained of being “tired of all this slave stuff” the day she burned some of the items in the trunk.
A Theaterworks synopsis says the play is “centered around the telling of family history and the role of generational sharing in understanding, growth and self-worth” tied up in the “ongoing legacy of slavery and identity.”
Just as the high school student, Evelyn, refers to a map in the trunk that identifies White’s escape route, the synopsis adds, the play “explores the unwritten roadmap between past and present, and the relationship between the things that we leave behind and those that carry us forward.”
Carleton’s 20 years of experience as a playwright shows itself in inventive choreography, skillful character development and a playfulness with words. He makes Evelyn a bird watcher who takes a particular joy in red-wing blackbirds. In the play and its title, he contrasts joyous flights of freedom with desperate flights from pursuers. He also deftly makes an already annoying slavecatcher all the more annoying by having him ask Hyde, whom he suspects of harboring slaves, what he “is hiding today.”
Westhoff says the play is served up with Theaterworks’ “special sauce.”
One ingredient of that are evocative musical numbers that add variety while punctuating content like accents on a drum. Bird sounds and traditional African percussion also provide an aural backdrop.
The other crucial ingredient, Westhoff said, is that “we don’t talk down” to the middle school audiences, “and, in that sense, the plays play well for audiences of all ages.”
Evelyn LeTeshia, who plays the character Evelyn, said a crucial moment arrives when, in a dream state, her character asks the escaping Addison White: “How do you stop people from hating you who don’t even know you?”
The White character say that’s impossible.
The discussion the two have on how to accept that reality and overcome the anger in a way that preserves ones dignity and self-respect will speak to anyone who has been trapped in any of life’s oppressive circumstances.
But Freedom Flight is reminder how that deeply that struggle is embedded in the African American experience – and why.
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