As part of its Staged: New Play Readings series, OdysseyStage presented a reading of Keith Burridge‘s new play, Ona, a historically-derived work based on the life of Ona Judge, one of very few slaves known to have escaped from the household of Martha Washington. The irony, of course, is the idealism of America’s Founding Fathers, contrasted with the reality that many of them continued to buy and sell other human beings for a large part of the history of the country they sought to liberate from British rule. I was shocked to hear that Martha Washington had independently owned 80 to 150 slaves, and Ona’s experiences make an amazing, horrifying story.

Burridge, a retired UNC cell biologist and established playwright, based most of the play on historical accounts, utilizing biographies including Erica Armstrong Dunbar‘s Never Caught and Marie Jenkins Schwartz‘s Ties that Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves.

A cast of nine read from a row on stage, standing to deliver short vignettes that related both historical and narrative events in short conversations. Sometimes mundane, sometimes emotionally charged, these conversations brought together different combinations of White and Black characters to unsettlingly powerful effect. Martha Washington (played by Mary Rowland) and Quaker abolitionist Dolley Todd (played by Kelly McDaniel) chat about the impending French Revolution and slave rebellions as if they are theoretical, faraway threats, while slaves Hercules Posey (Evit Emerson) and Ona Judge (Sierra Smith) listen, horrified, from the kitchen. Rowland was alternately blasé and matter-of-fact, perfectly portraying the status quo of the time: slavery was a reality that many people never questioned and genuinely believed was better for society. There was a harsh disconnect between Martha’s matriarchal compassion and the treatment of her slaves. Martha insists that she has been treating Ona “like a daughter,” even as she muses that the slaves “wouldn’t know what to do with freedom” if they were granted it. Rowland’s acting opposite Emily Chiola’s portrayal of Martha’s granddaughter, Betsey Custis, was especially effective. Betsey represents a younger, more entitled generation, cynically piecing together Ona’s escape and assuming the worst of her, while Martha displays more naiveté. Chiola effectively delivered Betsey’s vicious, antagonistic treatment of Ona, fleshing Betsey out into a full-on villain.

Smith’s reading was brilliant and heartbreaking, honoring the memory of the real Ona Judge. From a young girl crushing on a man she meets at the market, trying to figure out how to see him again and send him a gift, Ona develops as she is forced to face the realities of living as a slave. Smith’s earnest, girlish Ona grew, sadly, to become a beaten-down woman accepting life’s harsh realities. Smith and Emerson had great chemistry both as Ona and Hercules, and as Ona and Jack Staines; they conveyed three-dimensional characters that were continually thrust into new and more harrowing circumstances.

Gerald Rubin’s Reverend Allen is often the bearer of outside news for Hercules and Ona, and Rubin typically delivered this information with a tragic tone of resignation, even as Rev. Allen is encouraging them to keep up their faith. The sheer practicality of many of these conversations, the seemingly mundane details that were realities in their lives, kept hitting me like a sucker punch. For example, the wanted poster for Ona seen in her new home of New Hampshire is based on an actual advertisement in a 1796 edition of the Philadelphia Gazette that offered a $10 reward for her return, in which the Washingtons claimed to have “no suspicion of her going off nor no provocation to do so.”

McDaniel was infuriatingly good at illustrating Dolley Todd’s evolution from a young, impassioned abolitionist to a reluctant slave owner, symbolically crushing any lingering hopes of things changing during Ona’s lifetime. Travis Walsh, who read stage directions, also played the character of Joseph Whipple, a seemingly slimy friend of the Washingtons who attempts to persuade Ona to return home after her escape. Walsh’s reading was convincingly unpleasant (in a good way!), though the actual historical details of the character were lost in translation; Whipple was privately an abolitionist who declined to return Ona by force and refused to aid the Washingtons in Ona’s return, despite the consequences. George Washington himself had signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which guaranteed the right of slaveholders to recover escaped slaves across state lines, so Whipple’s refusal was actually illegal.

The play is still in progress, and it was heartening to hear many audience and cast reflections during the talkback with Burridge and director Karen Dacons-Brock, moderated by Yvette Holder, a leader in promoting NC playwrights. Excellent points about the pacing, character relationships, and structure of the show came up, and folks seemed excited all around for this new work to grow and develop. Ona is such an important story based on Burridge’s careful research, and it brings up many difficult yet true lessons about American history. Considering the racial subject matter of the play and given that the audience in attendance was almost entirely White, during the enlightening and informative talkback, I found myself wishing to hear more observations as to how the play was received specifically by Black audience members. Dacons-Brock has done extensive research in using theatre to educate and empower African American women and students, and her influence was evident in this intensely powerful, yet realistically grounded story. Kudos to the whole team for putting so much of themselves into such a difficult story to tell, but one that is so necessary.

*The Triangle Review‘s Melissa Rooney also wrote a lovely review of this event and brought up some of the great points discussed in the talkback! (This was erroneously credited to Triangle Arts & Entertainment, but in fact was published by The Triangle Review. Thanks to editor Robert McDowell for permission to link to your publication!)