Playwright’s Name: Anthony B. Knight, Jr.
Tell us about your latest project:
This project is a performance piece and concert and was created to tell important Civil War and Reconstruction stories. It also was created to showcase the beauty and the power of the Negro spiritual.
The stories that are told begin with that of nineteenth-century icon Frederick Douglass. Not only is Douglassâ€™ life a fine example of the strength and determination of the human spirit, but also Mr. Douglassâ€™ innate verbal skills, as well as his social and intellectual abilities, demonstrate the responsibility each person has to find his/her strengths, to follow them, and to actively use them for his/her lifeâ€™s work and in the face of any challenge that might befall him/her.
Using Frederick Douglass as the mouthpiece of the time, other important stories that are told in this piece are: how African Americans freed themselves from enslavement; the importance of family to enslaved African Americans; the role of African Americans in the Abolitionist Movement; the turning points that were the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Dred Scott case of 1857, and the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860; and Frederick Douglassâ€™ role in post-Civil War societyâ€”Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction. Much of this information, even if scantily known, is told, in this project, in a way that makes it more accessible, and gives the audience a chance to absorb it in a more personal way. Frederick Douglass introduces the information in a manner that allows audience members to think about the implications of these historical events rather than just taking in information as a mere exercise in rote memory.
In addition to Civil War stories, the other important element of this project is the Negro spiritual. The history of Negro spirituals is well known in most African American communitiesâ€”if only anecdotally. Spirituals are known to have been a healing mechanism that played an important role in saving many enslaved African Americans. This performance piece was written around the Negro spiritual, as before putting even one word to paper, I listened to many Negro spirituals and from them selected nine songs I felt not only would tell Frederick Douglassâ€™ story, but also the Civil War and Reconstruction stories that were important to tell. The result is a performance piece with a Negro spiritual concert at its core. The two are intimately connected and cannot be separated. To that end, the piece was designed so that Frederick Douglass and the vocalists would interact with each other throughout the pieceâ€”each one part of the other.
Finally, the piece is designed so that Frederick Douglass and the vocalists have opportunities to interact with the audience. Allowing Frederick Douglass to speak directly to an audience memberâ€™s face, or having a vocalist sing, specifically, to two or three audience members at a time connects the audience in a more visceral way not only to the information and to the performers, but also to their own thoughts and emotions. Their theater experience is lived versus observed.
What excites you about being a part of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival?
The opportunity to present Civil War history in a way that looks more at people and culture, and not war–and sharing this information with a New York audience (my hometown).
What’s your upcoming project after the Festival?
Working on a piece about African American migration from the south to the north.
Friday, March 25 at 7pm
HERE (145 Sixth Avenue – enter on Dominick Street)
Tickets are $18 at http://www.here.org or by calling 212-352-3101