This past July, Active Cultures Artistic Director Mary Resing sent me a Washington Post article about Jefferson Morley's book Snow-Storm in August. Set in 1835, Morley chronicles the historical events and key figures in one of D.C. earliest race riots. Since Active Cultures is interested in local history, art, culture, politics, and culinary practices, this story was perfect for them. What struck us both about the riot was the man who became a target of the violence, Beverly Snow, who the chef/owner of the Epicurean Eating House. He was attacked for being a successful Black man at a time when many White men were struggling financially. To me, this racially fueled violence seemed similar to the response that President Obama received upon being elected the first African American president of the United States. I knew I had to write this play.
At the time, I was already working on play about district attorney and author our national anthem, Francis Scott Key. The play, BEND AND SWAY, DON'T BREAK, is set in 1816-1817 around another true life event that has Key defending the rights of two free people of color who had been kidnapped. The case exposed a notorious interstate slave trading ring in the heart of the nation's capitol. Sadly, this play may never be written as I was meant to finish it twice already, but it was usurped by LOVE BROTHERS SERENADE and THE HAMPTON YEARS. While Key doesn’t appear in my play, he was a central figure in the two trials that followed the race riot, serving as district attorney in U.S. versus Reuben Crandall and U.S. versus Arthur Bowen. Arthur Bowen was a young slave who drunkenly wielded an ax in the doorway of his owner's bedroom. Reuben Crandall was an abolitionist charged with publishing seditious libels and circulating publications of the American Anti-Slavery Society. While Crandall's trial was heralded as the most sensational of Key's career, both trials changed the dialogue about slavery and freedom in this country.
In early September, I reached out to historians at the Library of Congress and the National Archives for research. I read newspapers that reported on the riots and the trials. I even read both trial transcripts and diary entries of Anna Maria Thorton, the woman who owned Arthur Bowen and wife of Dr. William Thorton, who designed the Capitol, the White House, and other historic buildings. I learned as much as I could about what life was like for whites, German and Irish immigrants, slaves and free blacks in Washington, D.C. What's more, I studied cookbooks, fashion, and popular songs from the early to mid-1800's. It was really quite wonderful! Then, in November, I started to write the play.
Last night's rehearsal was a culmination of this fast-paced, concentrated effort and it was exhilarating, fun and informative! I feel so fortunate to have a smart, passionate, talented, funny, and enthusiastic team of theatre artists coming together in the development of a new play. Director Colin Grube and dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe guided the cast, which included Maryam Foye, Eric Humphries, James J. Johnson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Dane Petersen, Colin Smith, Dawn Ursula and David Lamont Wilson through a quick and dirty read-through of the script. We stopped to flesh out confusion about the plot, make new discoveries about character and discussed how truly interesting the story of these people are. It's an exciting new play, even at these early stages.
Tomorrow, I'm going to feature the cast and artistic team. For now, here are some great photos from our work together!
Active Cultures presents a staged reading of
Our Man Beverly Snow by Jacqueline E. Lawton
as part of the annual Diving Board Festival
Directed by Colin Grube
Dramaturgy by Otis Ramsey-Zoe
Featuring Maryam Foye, Eric Humphries, James J. Johnson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Dane Petersen, Colin Smith, Dawn Ursula and David Lamont Wilson
Saturday, December 8th at 8:00pm
Old Parish House, located at 4711 Knox Road College Park, MD
Metro Station: College Park Metro (Green).
Click here for directions and parking information.