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The Fire of Freedom: The Story of Abraham Galloway, produced by Mike Wiley Productions, attracted a sizable audience to Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington and proved to be as entertaining as it was insightful. If you've never heard the name Abraham Galloway, you're not alone — but after seeing this show, you'll never forget him!
Written by poet and playwright Howard L. Craft, The Fire of Freedom is based on a book by the same name, researched and written by North Carolina historian David Cecelski. Galloway was played by Mike Wiley, a theatrical multi-hyphenate (actor-playwright-producer) known for his work in the realm of documentary theatre. After the play, there was a Q&A with Craft, Cecelski, and Wiley, in which additional context and facts were given about Galloway's life and the show's production.
Wiley brought wisdom and charisma to the role, claiming the audience's attention from the very start. Galloway was also a man that could command a room — in his later years he became one of the first African American state senators to represent North Carolina. He died in 1870, and though he was only 33 years old, he had one of the largest funeral processions in Wilmington history up to that point. Wiley played Galloway as the powerful and beloved man he was.
The play takes place in a small attic in New Bern, North Carolina. On an important night in 1863, Galloway must convince the local men to enlist in the Union Army, which did not often have African American interests at heart. Galloway says at one point, "Trust anything to be true to its nature." With first-hand experience, he admits that the Union Army's nature is geared toward self-preservation, often at the cost of Black lives, but "they can't persevere without us in their ranks."
Throughout the play, Galloway tells his life story. Through monologue, he describes his conflicted sense of fidelity to the Union — rightfully critical, but always faithful. He grew up as a slave and a child of rape. Unquestionably gifted with wisdom at a young age, Galloway recounts his memories of looking out at sea, and his eventual escape from Wilmington via one of the many cargo ships. After surviving miraculously, he makes it to Philadelphia as a free man. Shortly after arriving in the North, he joins the Union Army as a spy — though in truth, he says, "We were always spies."
Wiley's performance highlighted the character's ingenuity while always exuding a commanding presence. At one point, with knife in hand, Galloway describes "the things I've done and would do a thousand times again" to defend himself and others. At this exact moment, someone's phone rang in the audience. Wiley, didn't break character but ventured off-book. "Sound the alarm!" he said, menacingly eyeing the crowd. Then with a wink he pointed his knife in the direction of the perpetrator and reiterated, "I'd do it all again." The audience laughed at the retort. Committing an entire one-man show to memory is quite the feat, but Wiley proved that in the midst of all that dialogue, he could stay present in the moment, a testament to his talent.
Galloway recounted stories of bravery, courage, and fighting for what is right. He told the story of a friend of his, a young slave who he recruited as a spy — in the play he's called Thomas. Thomas fell from a high tree branch one day while listening in on a conversation in the upper story of his captor's house. He was quickly caught and murdered at the whipping post, but he never gave up any information or names. Wiley's performance and Craft's script emphasized Galloway's love for his friends and all of humanity, and the pain he felt when those he cared for were made to suffer. "If we must suffer," he says, may it be in pursuit of "a new day dawning."
Galloway's life was marked by close calls with death. His presence at New Bern on the night the play takes place is one such miracle. Cecelski said after the show that there is no record showing how he managed to escape a prison camp in Vicksburg, Mississippi and travel 900 miles to New Bern, evidence of Galloway's incredible ability to move unseen in enemy territory. Cecelski also noted that it's no surprise that there's little record of these events — Galloway was a master spy, after all, and exerted much effort to avoid leaving a paper trail. Though, according to Cecelski, it helped that Galloway's enemies hated him so much — presumably because they were the ones who wrote the most about him.
The events that led to his capture at Vicksburg highlight Galloway's conflicted relationship with the Union, and marks one of the strongest segments of the play. Galloway describes how the Union planned to reroute the Mississippi river into a canal. He tries comparing the plan to cow dung, but quickly interjects that this would be an insult to the cow. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the canal labor was done by Black recruits, and when it collapsed and flooded, Black bodies paid the price. What's more, after the collapse, the Union retreated, leaving the remaining African American population to suffer at the hands of the oncoming battle. Wiley's performance wonderfully brought to life Galloway's passion and solemnity, his belief in the future and his bereavement for the present.
Four nights after the events depicted in the play, Galloway led 4,000 African Americans out of bondage from the New Bern area. And while many of Galloway's achievements have extreme local significance, his work was recognized on a national level. He was such an influential leader that at one event he conducted with Frederick Douglass, Douglass introduced Galloway — not the other way around.
During the Q&A, Wiley remarked on the importance of sharing these stories, the ones we don't often talk about. Cecelski noted that Wilmington and the seaports of North Carolina fostered a uniquely intellectual culture among enslaved African Americans. They were in constant contact with foreign sailors, getting a global education long before that was a wide-spread phenomenon. Wilmington in particular was home to several clandestine schools, which promoted learning among those who were denied the right to education. But these stories seem to contradict the ones we learned in school, in large part because of the lingering presence of Wilmington's White supremacism. Cecelski said that since the insurrections and massacres in the period from 1898-1900, we have been given what he calls the "Gone with the Wind version of history" — delicately crafted to avoid confronting hard truths and non-White perspectives.
The show and the Q&A each received their own rounds of rigorous applause and standing ovation. What began as a night out at the theatre became an evening of insight, education, emotion, and community. There was a real sense of imminence too, given that Galloway died in a house only a few blocks away from where Thalian Hall now sits. Seldom have I seen history brought so passionately to life as I did during The Fire of Freedom.