On October 5th and 6th, I’ll be workshopping my latest play, Freedom Hill. An homage to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, Freedom Hill is a metatheatrical play that takes place in Princeville, North Carolina. Set from 1870 to 1885, Freedom Hill follows the everyday lives of newly freed black citizens. But let’s back up a bit, I’d like to share a bit about how this play came to be:
Last year, I received an Arts and Humanities grant from UNC to support the research, writing, development, and presentation of a play focused on Environmental Justice. The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Their basic goal is for all people and communities across this nation to have clean air, land, and water. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. What’s more, the continued denial of climate change and deregulations are causing many communities to be at even greater risk. This creates such significant challenges for many marginalized and impoverished people, who are unable to leave their homes or afford costly measures to purify their water and air.
When I applied for the grant, I knew that I wanted focus on Princeville, North Carolina, the oldest historically black town in the United States of America. I had learned about Princeville from David Salvensen (Research Associate and Director, Sustainable Triangle Field Site), who I met after speaking on the UNC Environmental Summit. He has spent the past several years producing short documentaries about how climate changes is affecting people across NC (see climatestoriesnc.org).
Originally named Freedom Hill, Princeville was settled in 1865 by formerly enslaved men and women from the Tarboro area. The town was named after a knoll, where union troops had read the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1885, North Carolina granted the town a charter and Freedom Hill was renamed Princeville, after Turner Prince, a local political leader and carpenter, who helped to build the town. Since its founding, the people of Princeville have faced adversity from racial violence, poverty, and the rising tides of the Tar River. The greatest devastation was caused by two powerful hurricanes: Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Although not a coastal city and in spite of being fortified by a levee that was built in the 1960s, the Tar River flooded and washed the town away. Three years later, the town is slowly coming back, but each new storm makes full recovery a Sisyphean task.
When I began my research, I thought the play would be centered around a community based city planner who was working with the people of Townsville to rebuild after the recent devastation of a hurricane. You see, in addition to the impact of climate change, I was interested in exploring this question of place (physical location and a sense of home), community (location and people), and artifacts (how objects hold meaning, purpose, and memory). However, when Shirley Serotsky (Director and Associate Artistic Director and Education Director, Hanger Theatre) and I met with town manager Dr. Glenda Knight, I learned just how much the people of Princeville had lost and the great challenges they have ahead of them when working to rebuild. And I learned firsthand about connected the people of Princeville are to the land and the history, and also how resilient they are. I was also struck by the loss of their museum. There are only a handful of artifacts remaining. In that moment, the focus of the play shifted significantly.
I left that meeting knowing that that I had to write the town’s history into being, but I didn’t quite know which direction it would take. That is, until I shared my thoughts on the play and the powerful meeting with Vivienne Benesch (Artistic Director, PlayMakers Repertory Company) and Jules Odendahl-James (Dramaturg and Founding Member of bulldog ensemble theatre). In two separate meetings, they both recommended the framing of Our Town as a way to approach the history and the narrative. And so, in consultation with Amy Cooke (Teaching Associate Professor, Environment Ecology Energy Program), Mai Thi Nguyen (Associate Professor, City and Regional Planning), and David Salvensen, I set out to do just that!
This weekend, I’ll be able to hear the script for the first time and I’m beyond excited! Under the direction of Shirley Serotsky with dramaturgy by Jules Odendahl-James, the cast for this workshop includes Aliese Cobb, Thaddeus Edwards, Jennifer Evans, Rasool Jahan, Tia James, Thomasi McDonald, Monet Marshall, and Marcus Zollicoffer. Our stage manager is Erin Bell and stage directions will be read by Bethany Lockhart and Takhona Hlatshwako, who is working with me this semester as a research assistant through UNC's Institute for the Arts and Humanities Honors Collaboration. Of course, I’ll keep you posted on what happen next! For now, here’s more information about the amazing ensemble working with me on this play.
Freedom Hill Creative Team
JACQUELINE E. LAWTON is a playwright, dramaturg, producer, and advocate for Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the American Theatre. Her plays include: Among These Wild Things (2018 Semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference);; Anna K; Blackbirds; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; Edges of Time; The Hampton Years; Intelligence, The Inferior Sex; Love Brothers Serenade (2013 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference); Mad Breed; and Noms de Guerre (Susan Blackburn Prize Nominee (2015, 2017). Ms. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a 2019-2020 Institute for African and African American Research Faculty Fellowship, 2018 UNC Arts and Humanities Grant, 2018 UNC Institute for Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellowship, and 2018-2020 University Research Council Grant. She is a proud member of the Dramatist Guild of America and is the Regional Representative for North Carolina.
SHIRLEY SEROTSKY (Director) recently joined the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY as Associate Artistic Director/Education Director, after over fifteen years as a director, dramaturg, artistic leader, educator and programmer in the Washington, DC region. She has most recently served as staff dramaturg and public programmer for Mosaic Theater Company; and as a co-director of the Director’s Intensive for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Between 2008-2016 she held a series of leadership positions (including Interim Artistic Director for the 2015-2016 season) at Theater J, a professional theatre company committed to producing timely, and often politically-charged, new plays and revivals. During her time at Theater J, Shirley was an integral part of season planning, public programming, casting, artistic oversight, future visioning, budgeting, and producing for eight mainstage seasons. Previous to that, she was the New Works Coordinator for Catalyst Theatre Company and she was a founding member and producer for Bouncing Ball Theatrical Productions. Shirley has taught and mentored students from the age of six to eighty-six in the fields of directing, acting, improvisation, dramaturgy, play analysis, theatre appreciation, new play development and auditioning techniques in both a classroom setting and for resident theatre education programs. Training: BFA, North Carolina School of the Arts; MFA, Catholic University.
JULES ODENDAHL-JAMES (Dramaturg) is an artist/scholar who has been making theater in the Triangle for two decades. This season in addition to working as a dramaturg on the world premiere of Edges of Time (PRC2) by Jaqueline Lawton, she will direct As You LIke It for Duke University (Nov. 7-17) and Peerless by Jiehae Park for Bulldog Ensemble Theater (late May 2020). Recent credits include In a Word by Lauren Yee (Director, Bulldog Ensemble Theater), Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus (Director, Justice Theatre Project) and Behold! A Negress by Jacqueline Lawton (Dramaturg). She was an Associate Artistic Director at Manbites Dog from 2014-2018; is a founding member of the Bulldog Theatre Ensemble; an Associate Member of SDC, and a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA).
TAKHONA GRACE HLATSHWAKO (Research Assistant/Stage Directions) is a theatre enthusiast, a writer, and an avid reader of fiction. She has lived in three countries, and travelled to dozens more. Takhona has taken to the art of short story writing to capture the sketches of her imagination that have been inspired by her travels. Her short story, The Hem of My Skirt, won the Mini Max Short Story Competition. Takhona is a Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is studying Health Policy and Management, with a minor in Creative Writing. She is also currently undertaking a research apprenticeship with Professor Jacqueline E. Lawton, assisting in preparing dramaturgy packets for her plays.
Freedom Hill Ensemble
ERIN BELL (Stage Manager) is a Durham-based thespian and entrepreneur. She founded Bull City Photography in 2017, specializing in event and performance photography. Erin is also a board member at Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, where she works as a stage manager and lighting designer. Erin has done lighting design for Master Builder (Little Green Pig), Again but This Time with Feeling (real live people), Lady Misrule (Tiny Engine), and Auto da Fe (Monkey Paw). She has also taught lighting design for the Women's Theatre Festival.
ALIESE COBB (Bella Johnson) is excited to be reading for the role of Bella Johnson. She is an undergraduate senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in Communication Studies with a concentration in Media and a minor in Dramaturgy. She had the honor of attending the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York studying under Tim Crouse, Bill Hopkins, and Marcel Simoneau. She has been in student theatre productions with Company Carolina and LAB!Theatre. Aliese has recently worked in short films, commercials, and television productions within the Southeast region. She hopes to continue her education at the University of Southern California in Communication Management and further pursue her acting career.
THADDAEUS EDWARDS (Robert Taylor/Orren James) is a Durham-based performer who has performed across the Triangle for nearly a decade and a half, as well as touring productions along the East Coast. He is a founding member of Bulldog Ensemble Theater, having directed its inaugural production of Curve of Departure. As a native of Eastern NC, he is thrilled to be part of sharing stories based on and inspired by the history of Princeville.
JENNIFER EVANS (Earnestine McKnight) is as Triangle-based actress, songwriter and gospel recording artist Her earliest inspiration came from singing in Baptist churches in rural Mississippi. Her original vocal stylings earned her an 2007 EnSound Best Gospel Performer Award. She has performed at the annual Junteenth Festival in FL, and in 2010 made special guest appearances at DPAC at the Goodmon Awards and at the Carolina Theater for the Mahogany Dime Awards. Just Your Name is Jennifer's second CD release and it is a journey tied with the heartstrings of a little girl with a big voice from Mississippi. Its kaleidoscope of contemporary ballads and traditional gospel music is a poetic meditation for a world filled with pain and wonder. It will make you feel like you've been wrapped in velvet.
RASOOL JAHAN (Junie Clark) is a professional actress/director currently living in Raleigh. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from an HBC and is thrilled to, once again, speak the words Ms. Jacqueline Lawton has penned! Rasool is committed to Social Justice theatre and is grateful to serve as a conduit between audience and storyteller. She is currently working on her One Woman show and can be seen as Dr. Kara Andrews on Season #3 of the TV series, The Resident. Recent local credits include: Esther in Intimate Apparel, Jory in Disgraced, MiMi Real in The Parchman Hour at PlayMakers Repertory Company. Regional credits include: Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WriteAct Rep) and Vivian Bearing, Ph.D in Wit (Justice Theatre Project). Recent tv/film credits include Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella), The Bay (Barry Levinson), Freedom Song (Phil Alden Robinson), I Know What You Did Last Summer (Joe Gillespie), and House of Cards (Season 5/Netflix).
TIA JAMES (Lottie Jones) Tia James is an actor, teacher, director, currently a faculty member of UNC Professional Actor Training Program, vocal coach and company member of PlayMakers Repertory Company. Tia has been seen on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice (Broadhurst Theater), and regional theater productions of Richard III (Allentown Shakespeare); Loving and Loving (Stella Adler Studios); The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice (The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park), Much Ado About Nothing (Two River Theater) and Civilization (all you can eat) (Woolly Mammoth Theater). Her television credits include “Nurse Jackie” and “Treme.” Tia is the recipient of the 2003 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival; Irene Ryan Winner, the 2014 NYU Graduate Acting Diversity Mentorship Scholarship for Voice and Speech, and the 2019 Michael Chekhov/Zelda Fichandler Scholarship. Tia received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her MFA from NYU Graduate Acting.
BETHANY LOCKHART (Stage Directions) is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Dramatic Arts (B.A.), with an interest in playwriting, and Music (B.A.), with a concentration in composition. She will be working with Kenan Theatre Company in Trifles, a play in the upcoming One Acts Festival. She is honored to take part in the new play development workshop of Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Freedom Hill!
THOMASI MCDONALD (William Mabson/Samuel Lawrence) is a veteran theatre artist who has appeared on local, national and international stages with the Playmakers Repertory Company, the Hittite Empire with Keith Antar Mason, and The National Theatre Company of Mexico. His theatre credits include acting roles in "Skeletons of Fish" and "The Anatomy of the Blues," roles in August Wilson's "Fences," "Jitney," and "Gem Of The Ocean." Thomasi is a member of the NC Association of Black Storytellers, and a longtime area journalist who currently works as a staff writer with Indy Week in Durham.
MONÉT NOELLE MARSHALL (Abigail Johnson) is an artist, director, playwright, curator & producer. A 2018 Indies Arts Award winner, she serves as the Founding Artistic Director of MOJOAA Performing Arts Company, producing new works by and new opportunities for Black playwrights. Recent projects include the “Buy It Call It” performance installations, a trilogy in response to the systemic oppression Black artists encounter in the art world, the toll of capitalism on their minds and bodies, and the process of reclaiming one’s holiness and self-worth. She is currently working on The Bring Me My Purse Project, a multidisciplinary, multi-phase project that exposes the economic reality of Black women. You can see her next in “No Child” at Cape Fear Regional Theatre. You can learn more about her upcoming work at MonetNoelleMarshall.com.
MARCUS ZOLLICOFFER (Elijah Johnson) is a North Carolina native, raised in Durham and started acting at the Haiti heritage center. Graduated from NC A&T state Univ majoring in Theater. Recently seen in Bulldog Theater production of Curve of Departure, Marcus is excited to be working on original art and looks forward to more performances in the Triangle. Previous performances include Stickfly (Raleigh Little Theatre), A Midsummer Night's Dream (North Carolina Shakespeare Festival/Understudy), Once on this Island (Temple Theatre), A Soldier's Play (North Carolina A&T State University), and Ubie (North Carolina A&T State University).
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!