Addison — Mark-Brian Sonna of MBS Productions cracks a window open into slavery for his expressed goal of giving the audience an idea of “what it must have been like to be a slave since these are all first person accounts.”
Slave Letters opened Thursday in the Stone Cottage in Addison. Part of Sonna’s premise for this production is his impression that a lot of people are not well-informed about the system of slavery implemented in America. He uses slave letters, excerpts from legislative documents, and music to offer glimpses into a few of those lives. This production is dedicated “to the memory of the over 5 million people who were slaves during the slave era in the United States, 1640-1865.”
Some of the letters used for this production are housed in the Campbell Family Letters archives of Duke University Library. Additional supporting documents can be located within the Library of Congress.
Sonna has been very thoughtful about the selection of material for use in this program. The actors’ performances are believable, and stirring. Each actor delivers the text of different documents as monologues. Each actor begins by identifying their character by name, and the date of the letter. Interestingly however, the cast list in the program—in alphabetical order: Bryan Blanks, Tony Key, Kwame Lilly, Hester Moore, Gabrielle Rose, La’Netia D. Taylor and Natasha Wells—does not include the documents/monologues dramatized by the actors so the actors themselves remain anonymous.
Workers assuming roles without identities.
So it was with the slaves whose ancestral connections had been severed and familial bonds devalued. These acts restrained individualization among the slaves. This choice effectively underscores the solitariness of the slaves’ existence. Modern day genealogical research by African-Americans is impeded by those decisions and actions by the slave owners. Researching through the wall of slavery is for many descendants impossible. Handling the cast listing and presentation in this way effectively underscores the solitariness of the slaves’ lives.
Sonna interspersed the letters with excerpts from legislative documents and with songs from the period. All of the songs are sung a cappella and each voice is strong. This is not a musical. The actors deliver the songs as pitched monologues, offering a natural folk quality that is appropriate for this presentation.
He included the 1662 Virginia law that established hereditary slavery, that a child born of an enslaved mother inherits her slave status. Also included is an excerpt from the 1705 Virginia law that declared all slaves as real estate. That 1705 law also acquitted masters who killed slaves during punishment, and it forbade slaves and free colored people from physically assaulting white people, including a denial of slaves from bearing arms or leaving the country without written permission.
Research into slavery is a mammoth undertaking that requires considerable exploration to achieve historicity (historical authenticity). Even the translation, including reading, of slave letters is not without challenges. There are so many factors to consider such as the inherently unequal relationship of master to slave which compromises any ability to determine whether love from the slave toward the master could actually exist. Modern psychology describes the Stockholm Syndrome wherein captives exhibit sympathies toward their captors.
Also to be considered is whether slave letters would have been read by the owners, which would most certainly determine what the slaves would have expressed in those letters. Would one expect a slave to be critical of a master in a letter set to arrive at another master’s plantation?
There is a relatively new area of American history, New Southern Studies, which seeks to give a more contextual reading of our historical documents. That research is deepening and as more is learned, more questions are revealed. The process of interpreting of our extant documents remains imperfect. One thing is clear: it’s complicated.
This is not a sad production, neither is it presumptuous. It is presented with simplicity and a heavy reliance that through the voices of the letters’ authors their humanity will shine through now as it could not with freedom when they lived.