'Lights out. Lights up. Go!' Mad River Theater Works has new a creation
A generation ago, the play “Freedom Bound” told the story of how the Mechanicsburg community and a local sheriff helped prevent federal marshals and slave catchers from returning Addison White to slavery. Mad River Theater Works’ new creation, Freedom Flight, portrays a fictional great-great-granddaughter’s present-day battle with slavery’s entrenched legacy: racism. WYSO’s Tom Stafford reports from Yellow Springs.
Daniel Carlton: Whenever I look at a trunk, it just reminds me that things do last.
Tom Stafford: That’s African American playwright Daniel Carlton explaining how a trunk representing the one Addison White’s family donated to a museum landed a central role in his play “Freedom Flight.” Two stories plucked from it for the play are straight from the Mechanicsburg childhood of White’s great-great grandson John Booth.
John Booth: When I was around 7, 8-years-old, a bunch of my friends had gone to the county fair and came back with replica Civil War hats. I snuck the Civil War hat from my great-great grandpa and went outside and started playing with my friends. I believe it was my grandmother, hollered, 'Johnny, get your butt back into the house!' Gave me a whippin', and I never touched it again.
Stafford: Booth, of Yellow Springs, has a foggier recollection of items being taken from the trunk and destroyed.
John Booth: At a certain point, my aunt felt that it was not necessary to keep all this slave-ish around the house. She didn't burn the trunks, but she burned a lot of what was inside of it.
Stage Manager: All right. Lights out. Lights up. Go!
Stafford: In the play, Addison White’s latest descendents are represented by Evelyn. She’s a small town African American high school student, who explores the family trunk.
It happens as she’s both rankled and puzzled by a white policeman who suspects that her bird watching is linked to criminal activity rather than her life’s dream. Later, in a dream state, she finds herself with Addison White as he flees captivity, unaware he will find sanctuary on Udney Hyde’s farm near Mechanicsburg. Evelyn LeTisha plays the character Evelyn.
Evelyn LeTisha: He just got into Ohio, and he’s on the run. And she knows him and Mister Undey make history together. She has this old newspaper article that has a picture of them together and a map that leads to Mr. Udney’s place, so she does direct him there.
Stafford: Later in her dream, Evelyn then asks Addison for guidance on another matter: How do you stop someone you don't even know from hating you?
Evelyn LeTisha: He basically tells her, you know, you really can't, but you can't allow people to dictate who you are. It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to. That’s something he had to learn and now he teaches it to her.
Tom: Mad River Theater Works managing director Chris Westhoff says this issue—and others—are on the minds of middle school and high school students who will be seeing “Flight to Freedom” during a two-month, 20-state tour that begins after Friday’s premier.
Chris Westhoff: They're living at a time when Barack Obama has already been a president and…amidst the political turmoil that is now in an age where Black Lives Matter is ubiquitous and yet is still controversial, where the agenda about what will and will not be taught in the public school system is so heated and biased and fraught. So, we need to make something that meets them where they're at.
Stafford: Westhoff says a refusal to talk down to its audience has always been a part of Mad River Theater Works’ ``special sauce.” Another, he says, is music – and Freedom Flight has plenty. Cast members sing along to uptempo songs driven by Raitliff Faircloth’s guitar and the superb hand drumming and percussion of Carlton Pope. Combined with Westhoff’s composing skills and Daniel Carleton’s evocative wordplay, the work’s 55 minutes present a rich theaterscape. It’s further enriched by “The Flight,” a poem John Booth composed for the play in celebration of Addison White’s legacy.
John Booth: This family that has never given up, this family looks to the future but remembers that original Freedom Flight.
Stafford: In Yellow Springs for WYSO News, I’m Tom Stafford.
Freedom Flight premiers at 7 p.m. Friday at the Yellow Springs’ Foundry Theater.