“When a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges: One is the challenge of how do you behave when you're weak? And the other, how do you behave when you're strong? When you're weak, do you bend, do you compromise? Or are you unyielding and firm? And when you're strong — when you're victorious — are you cruel and vengeful, or are you merciful and forgiving?” Salman Rushdie
This quote, which serves as the opening inscription of my new play, OUR MAN BEVERLY SNOW, comes from Joseph Anton - A Memoir written by the brilliant, bold and incomparable novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie. In 1988, Salman Rushdie published a novel, The Satanic Verses. I was ten years old at the time and had no idea who Mr. Rushdie was or what happened to him as a result of him writing this highly acclaimed and controversial novel. My favorite books at that time were The Fabulous Five and Anne of Green Gables series.
I eventually did read The Satanic Versus in undergrad. It was an enthralling, majestic, devastating and terrifying read. It reminded me of how I felt when reading Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince for the first time. I was enchanted by this lovely, wise and forlorn tale. I read it page for page with my sister. At that time, my world was as a big as Tennessee Colony, a small rural farming community in East Texas, and only stretched as far as Palestine, a small city where we'd go to buy groceries and visit the library. We raised farm animals and kept a vegetable/herb garden. So I understood the tenderness of the Prince's description of his own planet, his devotion to his rose, the vigilance needed to combat the baobab trees and the taming of the fox. I loved stories of adventure and so was captivated by the Prince's visits to each planet. But when he meets the snake, I was afraid to turn the page. I felt a flash of heat and was filled with an ominous and foreboding feeling. Having grown up on the Bible, I knew what was coming and grew quite sad. I asked my mother to sit with us while we finished reading it.
I am fascinated by what happened to Salman Rushdie. He is an artist. He wrote The Satanic Verses in an attempt to talk about the nature of revolution. He did what I feel an artist is meant to do: ask questions, make observations and call attention to what is happening in the world. And he was punished severely for it.
OUR MAN BEVERLY SNOW is a play about revolution. It is the story of a young slave, Arthur Bowen, who in a drunken rage, picks up an ax and demands his freedom. It is the story of an abolitionist, Reuben Crandall, who--at the risk to life and limb--travels to D.C. to join in the fight to end slavery. It is the story of a reverend, Frank Cook, who preaches the word of God, teaches free people of color how to read and write and gathers a group of Black men together for enlightened discussion. It is the story of an immigrant, Andrew Laub, trying desperately to hold on to his piece of the American Dream. It is the story of a constable, Madison Jeffers, who believes strongly in the institution of slavery, thinks very little of free people of color and despises abolitionists, but is honor bound to protect those in his custody regardless of their beliefs. It the story of a culinary artist, Beverly Snow, who travels to the nation's capital, brings culture the masses and creates magnificent cuisine. He didn't discriminate and opened his doors to slaves, slave owners, auctioneers, and abolitionist alike. Yet, it is his name that is dragged through the mud, his restaurant that is ransacked and he, who is run out of the nation's capital. It is the artist who is punished severely.
The reading this past Saturday was really beautiful. Having written it so quickly, I really had no idea what was there. Even at these early stages, the script is powerful, relevant and compelling. Our post-show discussion was one of the most riveting and passionate that I have ever experienced. We talked a great deal about revolution, but were most interested in the types of people needed to make a revolution possible. In my research for this play, I came across an article, Five Types of Revolutionaries, by Dr. Mostafa Rejai, Professor of Political Science, and Kay Phillips, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology:
"The democratic revolutions of England, America, France, and Mexico gave rise to such historic figures as Cromwell, Hampden, Pym, and Vane; Washington, Jefferson, Otis, Henry, and the Adamses; Danton, Marat, Mirabeau, and Robespierre; Carranza, Madero, and Obregón. The communist and nationalist revolutions of the twentieth century have catapulted into prominence such men as Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Chou En-lai, Ho and Giap, Castro and Guevara, Arafat and Habash, Nkomo and Mugabe. All these men are bent on destroying the existing social order and replacing it with a new one. How they differ among themselves is a question that seldom has been addressed.
Our close examination of a relatively large number of revolutionaries reveals five distinct types:
The Founders (Francis Scott Key) - Represent a mature, solid, middle-aged, middle-class group. Typically members of the establishment in their own societies, most of them appeared on the revolutionary landscape in response to situations of national crisis or emergency.
The Professional Revolutionaries (Rueben Crandall) - Came from the middle or lower social strata and were radicalized quite early in life. They generally had long histories of antiregime activity, were arrested with regularity, and spent long periods of time in prison, exile, or both.
The Scholars (Frank Cook) - Come from the predominantly middle-social stata of their societies. Regardless of their specific professions (most often law, medicine, teaching, journalism, the ministry), they write extensively on a variety of subjects and contribute heavily to the theory and practice of revolution.
The Agitators (Andrew Laub and Arthur Bowen) - they characteristically combine shades of leftist doctrines—anarchism, socialism, communism—with strong nationalist commitments. The Agitators share some characteristics with The Professional Revolutionaries, but in contrast, their commitment is not firm, final, and unwavering. Given appropriate circumstances, The Agitators may turn opportunist.
The Generals (Madison Jeffers) - constitute a professionally educated group, consisting most likely of middle- or high-ranking military officers who become involved in revolutionary activity late in their careers, either because of acute dissatisfaction or as a response to situations of national emergency.
However, there is seemingly no role for the artist. The one who helps the rest of us see our way through the madness and destruction to a place of peace and understanding. The one who fashions chaos and fear into a poem, a song, a mural, a sculpture, a novel or a dance. The one who is accused of inaction and ridiculed for their dreams. The one who asks questions, makes observations and calls attention to what is happening in the world. The one who is punished cruelly for bearing witness and giving voice.
Commissioned, developed and presented by Active Cultures, the reading of OUR MAN BEVERLY SNOW was directed by Colin Grube with dramaturgy by Otis Ramsey-Zoe and featured Maryam Foye, Eric Humphries, James J. Johnson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Dane Petersen, Colin Smith, Dawn Ursula and David Lamont Wilson. Here are some pictures from the reading.
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!