"We hope to give our audience a clear, articulate and passionate experience of theatre with little other than a room, audience, the actors, and the text." In the opening paragraph of their mission statement, Bare Theatre articulates the most basic tools – space, text, actors, audience – for a theatre company to achieve its most basic purpose – a passionate experience of theatre. Without a space to call their own, Bare Theatre caters to whatever audience they find in whatever space is available. In some instances these may be limiting factors for the fulfillment of their mission, but on June 9, they nailed it. Historic Stagville is one of the largest surviving plantations from Antebellum North Carolina. As they celebrated the anniversary of the emancipation of the last enslaved people in the country, they hosted Bare Theatre's performance of Let Them Be Heard on the grounds of Horton Grove in Durham, NC. Conceived by director Todd Buker, Let Them Be Heard tells the word-for-word stories of seven African-Americans enslaved in the Raleigh-Durham area, as they spoke them to the Works Progress Administration between 1936 and 1938. The WPA's compilation, known as the Slave Narrative Project, records the stories of over 2,300 former slaves, 176 of them North Carolinians. Buker has taken the works of those journalists with the foresight to take the stories down and has given them a powerful new life in the voices and bodies of the seven actors in his thoughtful, provocative ensemble.
Audience members began their walking, lantern-lit journey in the original slave quarters in Horton Grove. The two-story, four-room buildings were luxurious as far as slave quarters went. The four buildings at the site housed approximately eighty slaves in their sixteen rooms – about one room per family of five. As the audience crowded into the small room, with the fingerprints of the slaves who fashioned the bricks in the walls, Tempie Herndon (Barbette Hunter) woke to begin her story. 103 years old at the time of her interview, Tempie retells her memories as a slave in Durham; assisting her mother with their mistress, marrying her husband on her master's front porch, her husband leaving the next morning to return to his owner's plantation down the road. Tempie's story was followed by the robust Reverend Squire Dowd (Phillip B. Smith) from Raleigh. He spoke on his life as a young house boy, and his education after the Emancipation. Fanny Cannady (Kyma Lassiter), last to speak in the small living space, spoke of her witness to the murder of a field worker by her master's son. Her warm gospel song led the audience from her small home to transition down the dirt road to the Great Barn. Here in the slave-built mule barn, which may have been the largest in the state, the audience was met by the melancholy working melody of four men: Henry Bobbitt, Andrew Boone, Thomas Hall, and Dave Lawson (Kashif Powell, Warren Keyes, Jeremy Morris, and Justin Smith, respectively). Whether with the determined joy in Andrew Boone or the enduring hatred in Thomas Hall, each laid sorrow upon sorrow as they retold the trials of slavery, and of the sense of helplessness that accompanied emancipation. While each story-teller held a different sentiment toward slavery, all spoke in unison of their freedom. They were left with no money, no land, and no one to turn to. The wounds inflicted during their enslavement were too deep to heal with a declaration from a President, if they healed at all.
As for the space, the text, and the actors, Bare Theatre could not have done better. The humble and honest spirit with which the ensemble took on the people they represented drew poignant images of those who lived with hope and pain during the time of their slavery. The truth of the words delivered at the heart of their origin provides as truthful a text as the theatre can hope to undertake telling. The only regrettable aspect of Let Them Be Heard is its brief telling. Bare Theatre and Historic Stagville have given voice to a few among many and must continue speaking; to continue to let them be heard.*