The cast and crew of Colonial Williamsburg’s groundbreaking program Journey to Redemption join to talk about how the piece was developed and why it’s so important to be having conversations surrounding racism and the history of slavery in our nation. Learn more
Rachel West: This February, Colonial Williamsburg is proud to offer programming in support of Black History Month. One of these programs is Journey to Redemption, an incredibly beautiful and emotional piece on the stories of slavery we tell and the actors involved. Joining me today is the cast and crew of the program: Antoinette Brennan, Dave Catanese, Corinne Dame, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Lewis, Jeremy Morris and Mary Carter. Thank you so much for joining me, guys. So what is Journey to Redemption?
Katrinah Lewish: That’s interesting, because when we were devising Journey to Redemption, we talked a lot about the title. The title existed before the play did. Journey to Redemption is a play that the six of the cast who are sitting here, and Mary Carter who is here as our assistant director, and Lucinda McDermott Piro devised last year, utilizing the stories of enslaved people that we portray and people that owned enslaved people in the 18th century, and exploring how those stories weave together, and then looking at us as actors that come here to play these characters, play these historical figures, and how it affects us: what we’re trying to do by telling these stories…
Jeremy Morris: Yeah, it’s all of those things and it’s an answer to the apparent call these days of what is mine to do really. We find ourselves asking ourselves these questions as artists when it seems as if the world is devoid of harmony. We know for a fact that it doesn’t just fall to one person. And so we explore that based on the fact that we’re different folks who come from different backgrounds, but we’ve all ended up here to tell this specific story that needs to be told and needs to be justice. And the consequences of that, the results of that, the ramifications of that are heavy. You know, we take on a very specific role, we take it on for a very specific purpose, but it’s hard. We do it with a joy, we do it with an understanding of our responsibilities, in so we can do it, we can share it and trust one another, and so all of those things are part of what Journey to Redemption is, that the fact of this collective being able to do it the way we do it is in hopes that we’ll be able to inspire whoever sees it to find whatever it is that they have to do, that their role is in furthering the conversation and hoping the bring the world to a better place of unity.
Antoinette Brennan: We want to raise awareness and we want to start a dialog.
Corinne Dame: It’s a journey.
Katrinah: It’s the first step of a journey for us.
Rachel: Katrinah, you mentioned a little bit about how the program came about, but can you guys kind of explain what kind of play this is and what people can expect to see?
Corinne: It’s not a typical play you’ll go and see on Broadway or in a typical theater where it has a beginning, middle and end…complete narrative. It’s divided into several parts and the parts are each their own individual piece, but they blend together. It’s something you come in with an open mind…(laughs) I’m not explaining it very well.
Mary Carter: What you see when you come in, what’s unique about this piece, and makes it distinctive from other work that we do here at Colonial Williamsburg, or at least our unit does, is that you get the opportunity to see these six individuals portraying their characters—two of them actually portraying two difference characters within the piece—and for the first half of the piece, they’re in character, whether they’re free or enslaved, and talking from that character’s point of view about that character’s situation in the 18th century. But then there’s this moment when they come out of these characters, because the difficulty of telling this story is remembering that we aren’t in the 18th century, and figuring out how to communicate with each other was a big part of developing this piece. And so in the second half of this piece you’ll see all of these individuals out of character and talking about their experience in telling this history to our public and sharing this history with each other, and that journey takes up exactly the same amount of time as the time that we spend in the 18th century, because it’s just as important to us to build those relationships outside of character, so that we can show the accurate history within this time period that we’re representing here.
Katrinah: And then promote dialog. We have what we call our post program chat at the end of the piece and we do it every time—it’s really part of the show—where we take an opportunity to dialog with the guests have come to experience our play. They can talk to us, we also encourage them to talk to one another, because we really want to build bridges and talking about race and racism and how it dates back to the beginnings of our country, it’s very difficult and it’s an elephant in our country, forget about the rest of the room. And being able to talk about it across race, across socioeconomic divide, we don’t have a lot of spaces where we can do that. And here at Colonial Williamsburg, our demographic does skew in a certain…what am I trying to say…it’s not as diverse as it could be, but you do have a lot of different people coming here for a lot of different reasons. So we have a space where diverse people—the seed is planted and we try to plant it in a way that says what you bring to it is okay. We’re going to listen to one another and we’re going to work this thing out together.
Antoinette: And the guests’ reaction has been amazing, I feel. They’re very eager to point out their feelings, they thank us for bringing this to the floor, and they seem to go away a bit different.
Corinne: It’s also amazing how they talk to each other, not just us. You see guests stay for over an hour talking to one another about their personal experiences, how this play affected them.
Antoinette: And some of them are a bit teary eyed, so you know we’ve touched them in that case.
Katrinah: We don’t have a lot of spaces where this conversation can happen, and I think there’s something in our society that’s really longing for that. I think we as a society are longing for those spaces to have dialog.
Rachel: Does everyone want to give a little bit of history about their character, talk a bit about who they portray, some of you portray more than one person in this show?
Jamar Jones: Sure, I’ll go. I portray two people in this piece. One is Mingo from the Powell House. He was owned by Benjamin Powell, and I also portray Roger from the Peyton Randolph House, which you can tour for the listeners out there. What’s interesting about both of them is, I’ll say Roger, he lives in one of the most affluent homes within the City of Williamsburg by Peyton Randolph being his master, he is the Speaker of the House. Also with Mingo, I interpret him as a carpenter and they’re both enslaved. Now, what’s interesting about both of those characters, Mingo’s story we do touch on in the piece, but they both have very significant live events that happen to them and we have them documented. If you look at Roger, he’s one of the few people on the Randolph’s inventory after Peyton Randolph dies to be sold. I believe in the early 1780s he is sold off and he is one of the few people that is and I find that story to be so interesting. But what we touch on with Mingo is that he is someone who was branded in 1772 and accused of stealing one of Lord Dunmore’s sheep. He was branded on his left hand with a “T” for “thief” and he received 25 lashes on his back. That’s all we have documented, but the thing about Mingo that I find fascinating is that no one knows for sure if he actually did it, because an enslaved person or a free black person were not able to testify in court at the time, so we explore that pain happening. Both of those incidents I try to use to craft their energy and their stories and it’s something—with Mingo especially—that I like to explore the idea of a carpenter who is taking pride in his work, but because of this situation and what he was accused of, what does it do to his spirit?
Dave Catanese: In the piece, I portray Joseph Prentis, who is the son of the guy who opened the Prentis Store in the middle of town. He is his youngest son. He’s raised in Williamsburg, lives here his whole life, does everything in his power to live here his whole life. In fact, his house was where the Matthew Waley School is now, up past the Palace, that’s where his house was right there in that spot. And he was a statesman, a lawyer, he represented York County for, oh jeez, many years in the House of Delegates, he wound up being the Speaker of the House of Delegates and he winds up not retiring but getting assigned as a district court judge of York County and lives here his whole life. We’ve got plenty of documentation on him, he’s an important guy to at least the city. But he was raised surrounded by slaves his whole life. Always. He was fine with it. When he was a kid, he had 25 slaves in his house. When he’s an adult, he has 17. And one of his sons later in life, his son John gets sent to Philadelphia for schooling and education in the printing trade. His son starts taking on some ides from Philadelphia, because if there was an abolitionist movement in the 1700s, it was in Philadelphia if at all, and he starts falling in with it. And Joseph ends up writing a letter cautioning his son to not get involved with it. He does that. And his son evidently takes it to heart because in the 19th century, John B. Prentis ends up becoming one of the largest slave traders in the south. He’s a man who like Thomas Jefferson, like George Washington, these other much larger figures who speaks on the rights of men, speaks on what is free and good in society, yet keeps dozens of people in bondage and has no wish to ever