By David Greenham
The script offers an indispensable vision of American history from the point of view of African women.
Wrestling With Freedom, written and directed by Jacqui Parker. Sound design by Lee Francois. Co-produced by Gloucester Stage and Our Place Theatre, East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, closed.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, two enslaved African women living in New England struck up a correspondence. Phillis Wheatley (Candis Hilton) lived in Boston and is considered to be the first African American poet of distinction. Obour Tanner (Inés De La Cruz) was the servant for a silversmith in Newport, RI who went on to found the African Female Benevolent Society in the early 19th century.
For her new play Wrestling With Freedom (which has been in development since 2017), Boston-based playwright, director, and actor Jacqui Parker has drawn from letters written between Wheatley and Tanner from 1772 to 1778. The correspondence is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society and available on line.
In the script’s current version, which received three performances at the Gloucester Stage Company this past weekend, the two historical figures are joined by Sarah (Deniece Woodard). Parker makes use of the letters and some narration (provided by Sarah), to tell the complicated but loving story between Wheatley and Tanner. At one point, Wheatley writes that she hopes her poems will show “the intellect of the African race.” Tanner shares her dream of creating a place for women because “even wealthy women know that their voices have little power.”
When they have a chance to meet, Wheatley says she’s very happy that they are friends and wishes they could spend to day together. Tanner, the more pragmatic of the two, replies that they can’t just spend a day relaxing in a park. “We’re friends, but not ‘white people’ friends,” she wryly snaps. Later she admits, “Sometimes I feel what is probably hate,” toward her white owners and the society around her.
Historians believe Wheatley was born in Senegal in West Africa in 1753 and that she was captured and enslaved at the age of seven. She arrived in Boston after being sold to a prominent tailor, John Wheatley. In documents, Wheatley’s wife Susanna notes that the couple wanted a “domestic” and purchased a “slender, frail female child…for a trifle.” They chose her first name after “The Phillis,” the ship that brought her in chains. It’s likely that her path went from Africa to the West Indies, and then to the southern colonies before arriving in Boston. At each stop, enslaved men and women would be sold into servitude. By time she arrived in Boston, the girl was considered a near worthless refugee because she was too young and frail to be of value working on sugar plantations or in cotton fields.
Tanner arrived in Newport under similar circumstances. Historians believe that she was also born in Senegal in 1755. She was purchased by Newport silversmith John Tanner. She was eventually baptized and became an active member of the First Congregational Church of Newport, whose minister, Rev. Samuel Hopkins, was a leading abolitionist.
Both women embraced Christianity at the behest of their owners, and their letters reflect a strong belief in God. While Tanner established a connection with an African community in Newport, Wheatley seems mostly alone, maintaining very little interaction with other Africans in Boston. That they both can read and write is, of course, highly unusual. Wheatley suggests that they’re lucky. If they hadn’t been sold to families they wouldn’t be literate, she explains. Tanner retorts that if they hadn’t been sold, “we’d know our mothers and fathers.”
Parker takes every opportunity to dig into the more challenging aspects of this snapshot into two lives. If nothing else, she gives New Englanders plenty to think about. We tend to think (comfortingly) that slavery was the south’s “peculiar institution,” but it doesn’t take much research to discover that there were many enslaved persons in New England states, and they generated a considerable amount of the wealth that helped New England communities grow.
So this story of two unlikely pen pals is enormously promising. But the production, in its current stage, is disappointing. On the surface, these letters mostly come off as polite and restrained. So a dramatization needs to make us see and feel the tension that lies underneath the words. But that anger/turmoil wasn’t clear in this staging.
As Wheatley, Candis Hilton suggests that she is capable of a powerful range of emotion. But her work with the text, especially when reciting the letters themselves, is ‘readerly,’ which slows the momentum of the narrative.
As Tanner, Inés De La Cruz is more energetic, serving as the play’s moral touchstone. The character is feisty — more unwilling than Wheatley to accept her circumstances. It would be interesting to have her role expanded to set up a greater contrast between her and the poet.
Parker’s decision to add the innocent Sarah to the drama is smart because it offers the potential for an additional perspective. Young Deniece Woodard’s charm is evident; there’s a mischievous streak in her performance that it would be fun to see explored further.
At play’s end, it’s left to Sarah to tell us what happens to Wheatley. It is sad, but also revelatory about the lives of most enslaved people. Post-Revolution America was challenging for white people; it was much worse for ‘freed’ African Americans.
Through her exploration of the friendship of Wheatley and Tanner, Parker wants us to acknowledge a shared responsibility, to understand the complexity of our dark legacy. The relationships in Wrestling With Freedom have not yet been shaped into a satisfactory dramatic form, but the script offers an indispensable vision of American history from the point of view of African women — a view from the past that is necessary if we are to move forward.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.