Dallas — The story of our nation is a uniquely commotional one. Ours is a troubled history, characterized by racial indecencies. Since our inception a comparatively short time ago, the struggle of African-Americans—from slavery, through Jim Crow, to segregation and discriminatory police brutality—has been etched into our DNA. It is an ever-present part of our growing pains, and it is important that we as citizens take every chance we get to self-reflect on that in order to better understand the direction of our path forward.
Soul Rep Theatre Company offers one such opportunity with their revival of The Freedmans in the Wyly Theatre’s Sixth Floor Studio Theatre as a part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s The Elevator Project. First performed 20 years ago and again in 2013, the show was originally produced to commemorate the opening of the Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial in Dallas. This current run has been dedicated to one of the original playwrights, nia akimbo, who passed just before the show’s opening.
Freedman’s Town, located in the present-day Uptown area, was a community of newly freed African-Americans founded shortly after emancipation in the late 1800s. It had virtually disappeared by the 1980s due to commercial development, save for a historic cemetery, which was unearthed by construction crews during the expansion of Central Expressway between Lemmon Avenue and Hall Street.
The Freedmans gives life to the disinterred bones in what director and Soul Rep co-founder Guinea Bennett-Price calls a “gift to the past from its future.” Featuring a 12-person cast, the work is a “ritualistic choreo-poem”—a collection of nine compelling poems with prologue and epilogue, all written by members of the Soul Rep Writing Consortium (akimbo, Chris Herod, Anyika McMillan-Herod, and Keith Price), and set against music and dance. Each poem conjures up true and imagined stories from the lives of those who lived, loved, and died during the height of Freedman’s Town’s existence.
The characters play to audience members on either side of the raised stage. The venue is intimate, so every gesture in the body and expression in the face is in full and clear view, driving the emotional impact of each vignette with surety. The set is minimal so as not to distract from the action, with branches strewn along the edges of the stage, and stumps and old wooden chairs set in the back for the players’ use when not taking center stage. Overhead hangs an unassuming white sheet, upon which images are projected to augment the text and dialogue.
The most ornate object on stage is the Dice Girl’s (Alexis Williams) harp, which she plays with a haunting sort of artistry during the entering procession and between certain movements. Her music is often augmented by the intoxicating movements of the Dancing Spirit (Dane Hereford), who covers the stage with interpretive dance—a fusion of what seems to be ballet and African tribal movements.
The scenes range effectively in drama and spectacle. For example, “Violet and Silus,” portrayed by La-Hunter Smith and Irwin Daye respectively, is a beautiful story of two young lovers at leisure; and “The Reunion of Mother and Child” details a quaint conversation between a mother (La-Hunter Smith) and her adolescent daughter (Joi Johnson) as they ponder a name for the newest addition to their family. The nuanced simplicity of these anecdotes offers a brilliant dynamic against the more powerful and moving scenes throughout the production.
“Cato’s Fire” evokes feelings of pain, anger, and vengeance as the ghost of Cato (Keith Price) recounts his experience of being forced back into the cotton fields, even after being made a free man. Here, sound operator Nash Farmer adds shock to the display with well-timed pops of the slave master’s whip, and as Cato receives his lethal punishment for fiery rebellion, lighting and set designer M. Scott Tatum utilizes chilling overhead visuals to call up the very harrowing reality of lynching in our nation’s history.
Stand-out performances came from the Dice Woman (Rene Miche’al) and The Hanging Tree (Monique Ridge-Williams). Miche’al’s portrayal of the mystic medium offered a connection between each vignette and offered the audience crucial moments of internalization and reflection. The subtle twitches in her hands and a desperate glimmer in her eye suggested a true connection to the ethereal plane wherein our characters dwelled.
It was “The Hanging Tree” that truly sold the production for this viewer. Written by Keith Price, this scene features the lamentation of a uniquely pointed and poignant perspective. Adorned in a crown of brambles and thorns, Ridge-Williams portrays an ancient tree—an extension of nature and the natural law itself—saddened by the perversion set upon it by men in the act of lynching. She implores her tormentors to put her to better use, to chop her down and use her as firewood so as to no longer be “a home for discontented ghosts.” The delivery is powerful and upsetting, while still leaving room for the immenseness of time and wisdom to settle over the drama.
“The Freedmans” amounts to an intensely engaging experience. It does well to gesture toward a crucial aspect of American identity, which is a much needed-effort during these highly polarized times. With beautiful music and dance and potent poetry, the members of the Soul Rep Theatre Company serve their mission well: “To provide quality transformative Black Theatre that enlightens the imagination, the spirit, and the soul.”