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Part Two of the The ArtsCenter’s thrilling Redbird: One-Act Play Festival, featuring new short plays by North Carolina playwrights, had its first performance the evening of March 14, with the remaining two out of the five plays presented. The glory of the program came in the second play, a very new work by Howard L. Craft. Inspired by wonderful historian David S. Cecelski’s book The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War (UNC Press), Craft’s one-actor play proved (again) that a monologue, in the right hands, can be supremely dramatic.
“What I’m trying to do as a black artist, particularly as a playwright, is to tell the stories that haven’t been told,” Craft told me in a late-January interview, the day before the first table reading of his script of The Fire of Freedom. Craft had first learned of Galloway (1837-1870) when he became intrigued by a portrait of the man in the N.C. Museum of History. NCMH program coordinator Emily Grant gave him some information and led him to Cecelski’s book. Craft thought Galloway would make a good subject for a play, but until he received the commission to write a new work for Redbird, he’d written only a few poems about this bold man who escaped slavery and fought against it in every way, ultimately being elected to the NC State Senate during Reconstruction. Staying in close communication with Cecelski as he drafted the script, Craft also read letters from African-American Civil War soldiers and the speeches of Frederick Douglass in order to create a voice for Galloway.
The day before that first reading, Craft was a little nervous. His brand new baby was to be directed by Chaunesti Webb, and acted by Jade Arnold, with whom he had not previously worked. He needn’t have worried. By the first performance, script, direction, and acting had merged with near perfection, and the powerful story was fully supported by excellent set (Rob Hamilton), lighting (Elizabeth Droessler), and costume design (Marissa Erickson), with additional richness added through projected imagery and audio components (Joseph Amodei and Tom Guild).
Jade Arnold is an extremely charismatic actor, with powerful vocal skills, explosive physicality and breathtaking timing, making his embodiment of Galloway as compelling as Craft’s words. In a hidden attic, in New Bern, in 1863, Galloway has come to speak from his own observations and experiences to a crowd of black men about whether to take up with the Union Army, about what and who can be trusted and why, distinguishing incisively between the cause of the Union and the cause of Freedom. A representative from President Lincoln is to follow him, and Galloway is making sure the men understand that they are in a position to bargain and require, before committing themselves to the army. “I am not asking you to trust his words, but there are things that you can and must trust. Trust in a thing to be true to its nature. The nature of a bullfrog is to leap. The nature of an Army is to kill. The slave will not be free without much killing.”
By Galloway’s final lines, it is easy to see why 5000 men would have followed him to form three regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. I was ready to go myself. “For me, there is nowhere else under the canopy of heaven I would rather be than with my brothers conspiring to knock down these southern gates of hell!”
Although The Fire of Freedom was first-rate, the first play in Program Two is the festival’s weak link. Written and directed by Dana Coen, Property is formulaic, obvious, dull, and some of it didn’t even make sense. The three actors worked mightily to make the most of the few sharp lines, but their characters were written to be about as deep as cardboard cutouts, and the direction made them flatter. The story of a young couple moving to the country from Seattle to live sustainably could have had potential, but one grasped from the first scene basically what would occur when Seattle mores (and ignorance) came into conflict with local realities. I expect the author thought it involved a clever piece of foreshadowing; instead, he had given it all away, draining any possible dramatic tension from the play. It was very like a soap opera, without real emotions, and with scenes dragging themselves into the dimming lights and bad music that signified a change of time. But don’t let that stop you from seeing the whole program. You will be mightily rewarded by Galloway, and perhaps by next weekend Coen will have written a little more sense into the script, or at least found another flashlight and a pair of work boots for his foolish would-be farmer.
Redbird continues through March 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.