Small but Humble Erasure Readers (L to R) Aisha-Dew-Becky-Porter-Hank-West-Jonathan-Ewart-Frances-Bendert-Daylen-Jones

Nowadays, land acknowledgements in the playbills of theatrical productions have become just as common as headshots and season sponsors. They are a way for theatres to recognize that they create art on stolen land. Though there are disputes whether these acknowledgements effectively offer steps towards justice and reconciliation, recognizing those who originally inhabited Indigenous land has become standard practice. But would Charlotte audiences recognize the name of the historic Cherry community alongside those of the Catawba, Cheraw, Sugeree, Wateree, and Waxhaw Peoples? Stephanie Gardner‘s play A Small and Humble Erasure brings light to a more recent land theft at the center of Charlotte’s theatre community.

As we picked up our playbills at the front of house of Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, founder Anne Lambert, excitedly asked if we knew anything about the play being read that night. She responded to shaking heads with delight, describing how audiences often leave in disbelief that such history exists under Charlotte’s own stages. With this foreshadowing, we entered the black box to see a relatively standard set up for a reading: eight chairs lined up, facing the audience and a wash of cool-toned lighting.

This eerily expectant atmosphere was subsequently broken by the smooth voice of Aisha Dew singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dew’s haunting song was followed by the shuffling of six more actors, entering with their music stands. The actors lip-buzzed and stretched, seemingly preparing themselves for a rehearsal or an audition. The cacophony of this introduction created a sense of discomfort for an audience that was gleefully chatting and drinking just seconds before. One woman sang a mournful song, bare-footed, as others casually existed alongside her, the audience caught somewhere between them, in confusion.

As the play went on, this jolting first image began to make sense. The narrator, Amy Wada, who plays herself in the production, took us back to the 1930s – when Charlotte’s art scene began to transform itself to what we know today. The many characters that inform the play’s action are played by the seven actors, morphing from city council members to affluent Southerners and more.

At the center of this work is the historic community of Cherry, which still stands today. The creation of this community is part of the Myers family legacy, a White Southern family who also established the Myers Park Neighborhood. Their daughter, Mary Dwelle, was the driving force for the foundation of the Mint Museum, and a self-proclaimed leader of Charlotte arts and culture. And perhaps as a result of this self-imposed title, Dwelle went on to aid Tom Humble and John Small in their search for land for the Little Theatre of Charlotte. The struggle to find a home for theatre is still relevant to the Charlotte performing arts community today. The audience, filled with local theatre owners and artists, chuckled along as the characters referenced these trials.

However, the witty humor of Gardner’s play slowly unsheathed a much more insidious secret. With the help of Mary Dwelle, The Little Theatre was able to find land: a slave cemetery in the Cherry community. Though the community fought against it, and Dwelle herself may have regretted her hand in the theft, this theatre company, now known as Theatre Charlotte, still stands today. The play even goes as far to reference a fire that occurred at Theatre Charlotte back in 2020, alluding to the possibility that the spirits of those once buried under the theatre could have caused it.

A Small and Humble Erasure blends humor with horror through the presence of real ghosts and history that haunts us. The staged reading was followed by a talkback, during which the playwright Gardner communicated she senses the discomfort her play is already causing. It’s true that the Charlotte theatre community is struggling, and perhaps this call for justice may read like an internal attack. But Gardner, the cast, and the audience last night seemed to echo the same sentiment. If Charlotte theatre is to move forward, it must recognize its past.

This event has concluded, but to see the event listing and learn more about Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, follow this link.