Playwright Rick Foster, who lives in the Sierra foothills, has written a new play about two pivotal figures in the lead-up to the Civil War: abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglass, who were colleagues and friends. The play, called "Abolition," at Celebration Arts is intense, and well worth seeing.
Brown was a New England Puritan — a white man well-versed in The Bible, whose deep-seated, righteous opposition to buying and selling human beings was white-hot in its intensity. Brown realized that the number of slaves in this country was growing by leaps and bounds. Consider this exchange with Douglass:
Brown: “Today, there are 72,000 more slaves than there were a year ago. And that has been true of each of the last 10 years.”
Douglass: “That’s hard to believe.”
Brown: “The figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau … look it up!”
Douglass was a mixed-race man who was a slave as a boy, and escaped to freedom around age 20. He became a prominent intellectual, giving speech after speech about abolishing slavery. Douglass preferred to see this accomplished by nonviolent means. But Brown was in a hurry; he planned an armed uprising that he hoped would trigger a war, leading to slavery’s demise.
This play examines a difficult moral question: When society is facing a truly desperate crisis, is it OK to turn to violence and kill people, even if they are unarmed? It’s a question that would return about a century later during the Civil Rights Era, when Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolence, while Malcom X felt that under certain circumstances, violence was appropriate.
Foster’s script draws on Brown and Douglass’ speeches and letters. It also includes excruciating verbal descriptions of black men — and in one case a pregnant black woman — being lynched by angry white mobs.
There are only two actors: veteran professional Thomas Maguire as the fiery Brown, and as Douglass, Levi Lowe, who’s barely out of his teens, and honed his speaking skills by winning California Poetry Out Loud competition two years ago. Both actors draw on the two men’s passionate feelings regarding the biggest moral issue of their times.
This new, historically informed play is very much worth your attention. And if you go, take along a teenager who’s studying American history; you’ll get a more vivid understanding of the systematic cruelty of slavery from this 90 minute play than you’re likely to develop reading a small stack of textbooks.
Abolition continues at Celebration Arts in Sacramento through February 3.