Dallas — Dramatists often conjure the spirits of the dead as a storytelling device. They’re sometimes used as the conscience of a character, or as a cautionary tale, or to comment on a time, place or era that cannot be recaptured. Or, as in Soul Rep Theatre Company’s revival of The Freedmans, in which all of the characters are ghosts, they’re there to celebrate a people who endured tremendous pain, but whose spirits couldn’t be crushed.
Soul Rep was a theater company in Dallas running from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, with a focus on work that reflects the African-American experience. The group gave the area its first glimpses of work by writers like Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Duane Chandler and Pearl Cleage. The Freedmans was created by company members Nia Akimbo, Chris Herod, Anyika McMillan-Herod and Keith Price in their third season, to celebrate the opening of the Freedman’s Memorial in 1998, on a plot of land at Interstate 75 between Lemmon Avenue and Hall Street where the remains of former slaves were discovered in a construction zone.
Now, the group makes a triumphant return by reviving the work as the first show of what will be a comeback season, with this production only running this weekend at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. It’ll be back in the spring, too (details to be determined). Artistic director Guinea Bennett-Price and Ed Smith, former artistic director of Jubilee Theatre, co-direct.
Featuring a large cast, many of them original Soul Rep performers (and now, their children), the work uses dance, text and song to give us nine scenes, plus a processional and epilogue, that imagine the stories of people living in Dallas’ Freedman’s Town Community (now the Uptown area) after emancipation.
Narrators Dee Smith and Mike Bowman frame the event, but, even with the title of narrator, don’t do much throughout the story. That works out better, actually, as the songs and text don’t need anyone to speak for them. Another character, called Dice Lady (Rene Jones), a Caribbean women with mystic powers, bridges the scenes.
Some of the vignettes deal with everyday life, others with darker topics like lynching. The scenes with dialogue are beautifully drawn—such as the young lovers Silas (Dane Hereford) and Violet (LaHunter Smith), imagined from one of the statues at the memorial; or the one in which Cato (Keith Price) is made to work in the field again despite that he is a free man.
A particularly moving spiritual has the women singing to the cotton, begging it not to grow, because the workers’ backs ache and their souls are bruised.
The most powerful scene features the character of Old Mammy (Anyika McMillan-Herod), who is close to death and realizes she’ll never get to see the village of her birth, in Ghana, again. Her sadness is palpable. The other women sing and implore her to visit it through her memories. She follows their cue and erupts in dance as she is swept away in the moment. It’s one of the most stunning single images in any production I’ve seen this year.
With simple, period costuming and a bare stage backdropped with video that complements, rather than distracting from, the action, The Freedmans is a compelling and emotional experience. Here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come from a company that should be welcomed back with open arms.