Stories from slavery times
What started as a one-weekend performance at Historic Stagville in 2012, “Let Them Be Heard” has become a performance series that continues to share stories from the Slave Narrative Project. It will also move beyond its original venue, with plans for other state historic sites and eventually other states and other stories of former slaves.
“Let Them Be Heard” was performed in June 2012 and again this past summer at Historic Stagville. It is back as “Let Them Be Heard In Winter” this weekend and next again at Stagville before the show goes on the road. Stagville is a state historic site that was once a large plantation of the Bennehan-Cameron family, including 30,000 acres and 900 slaves.
“Let Them Be Heard (In Winter)” draws on new selections from the Works Progress Administration’s 1930s Slave Narrative Project, in which a few thousand former slaves were interviewed. In North Carolina, there were 176 interviews, said Todd Buker, editor and director of “Let Them Be Heard.”
“I know there were a lot of other stories we wanted to tell, even before the first time,” Buker said. Previous narratives were chosen by what cast members connected with, but this time Buker picked out ones that were particular revealing and offered insights not shared before, he said.
“Themes emerged – as bad as slavery was, the time after was even worse,” Buker said. Narratives were lightly edited for “Let Them Be Heard.” In previous presentations at Stagville, the “n” word was changed to Negro, but this time it is left in, verbatim.
One SNP interviewee featured in “Let Them Be Heard (In Winter)” is Patsy Mitchner, portrayed by actress Barbette Hunter. Mitchner was 84 years old and lived on McKee Street in Raleigh when she was interviewed. She talked about belonging to a newspaperman and how slaves turned the wheels on the printers in a building on Dawson Street. The master beat her mother and treated them meanly, she said, and her mother and siblings were sold and shipped to Mississippi, Mitchner says in the interview that Hunter will perform.
“Slaves prayed for freedom. Den dey got it dey didn’t know what to do wid it. Dey wus turned out wid nowhere to go an’ nothin’ to live on,” Mitchner said.
Another former slave’s interview featured in “Let Them Be Heard (In Winter)” is that of Mattie Curtis, who lived on Route 4 in Raleigh and was 98. She talks about being born on John Hayes’ plantation in Orange County, then being bought by a preacher in Granville County. Curtis talks about the beatings before and during the Civil War. Actress Terra Hodge portrays Curtis. Another former slave, Ben Johnson, 85, of Hecktown in Durham County, speaks about how was owned by Gilbert Gregg and watched his brother Jim sold to a woman for her wedding, and how he cried watching his brother taken off in chains. Johnson is portrayed by Malcolm Green.
Gil Faison portrays Thomas Hall, who was born on Valentine’s Day 1856 on an Orange County plantation, then later lived in Raleigh.
“Mainly he talked about how conditions were bad, children often sold and how slaves were punished sometimes by being burned at the stake,” Faison said. “Then not much changes. Blacks are free but lynched, and have to pretend. So he’s angry, a very angry African American man, … He goes on and on, how he doesn’t like Lincoln or Harriet Beecher Stowe and is very distrustful of white people,” he said.
Faison said you don’t find too many of that type of monologue in the Slave Narrative Project.
“Folks being interviewed were maybe hesitant. Maybe like Thomas Hall they were angry, but didn’t want to say,” Faison said. Some were sharecroppers and perhaps didn’t want the land owners knowing what they said, he said.
Faison said that his first time performing in “Let Them Be Heard” was the summer of 2013. He had never been to Historic Stagville before, or Horton Grove where slave quarters still stand as well as the slave-built barn. “Let Them Be Heard (In Winter)” will be performed at Horton Grove, inside two of the former slave quarters and at the bonfire pit outside.
“It was a very emotional moment the first time, to see the slave quarters,” Faison said. “Being in that place where it all happened. … It was powerful, very powerful,” he said.
When “Let Them Be Heard” is performed at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro in March, it will be a different feel than the plantation, Faison said, but Stagville will still be in the actors’ minds.
Buker said the stories are powerful no matter where they are performed. “Let Them Be Heard” makes the Slave Narrative Project more accessible to people, he said, and finding stories representative of the collection helps bridge the gap between modern audiences and the documents.
After Stagville and the ArtsCenter performances, “Let Them Be Heard” goes on to Hope Plantation in Windsor, N.C., and Somerset Place State Historic Site in Creswell, N.C.
“We’re also looking at next year touring other states with narratives from other states,” Buker said. “There’s a lot of interesting stories from elsewhere, too.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: “Let Them Be Heard (In Winter)”
WHEN: Performances at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 22, Feb. 28 and March 1
WHERE: Historic Stagville
5828 Old Oxford Highway, Durham
WHAT: “Let Them Be Heard” (Extended production featuring narratives performed 2012-14)
WHEN: 8 p.m. March 7, 8, 14, 15 and at 3 p.m. March 9 and 16
WHERE: The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St., Carrboro