Douglass Returns: Local playwright, actor and director partner for bicentennial play about Frederick Douglass

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Darnell Cunningham portrays Frederick Douglass as an older man traveling to Noblesville in 1880. (Photo by Sadie Hunter)

Darnell Cunningham portrays Frederick Douglass as an older man traveling
to Noblesville in 1880. (Photo by Sadie Hunter)

By Sadie Hunter

 

Indiana’s bicentennial year has just a few months left, but this week, local organizations are partnering to present a play that goes back in history approximately 136 years to when Frederick Douglass visited Noblesville.

“More Light: Douglass Returns,” a production by Main Street Productions, will make its debut on the stage of Logan Street Sanctuary in downtown Noblesville Nov. 4, with performances the following two nights on Nov. 5 and 6.

Playwright Celeste Williams, Noblesville, said she initially wrote a nonfiction piece for the Polk Street Review, an annual publication that features Noblesville writers and artists, in 2012.

“When I went to the library and researched his visit here, (Douglass), in his speech in 1880 to the people of Noblesville, mentioned being in Pendleton shortly after he had escaped slavery and was beaten unconscious and left for dead. I thought that was interesting, so that became the basis for the nonfiction piece,” Williams said. “How different the contrast of the recessions he received (in Pendleton) to when he was feted with parades and white horses (in 1880).”

For the bicentennial, Hamilton County Tourism made efforts to reach out to museums and historical spots throughout the county to see how each organization wanted to commemorate the year. From there, Hamilton County Tourism Awarded grants to see those ideas through.

“We had a documentary film we had done, but that didn’t seem exciting enough,” said Bryan Glover, a descendent of Roberts Settlement, founded in 1835 in Atlanta, Ind., by those born free and of mixed race, originally from North Carolina and Virginia, looking to get away from deteriorating racial conditions in the south. “So, I had been doing some research, independent of Celeste, on some of the Roberts Settlement history and learned that this man from Roberts Settlement was part of this committee that brought Frederick Douglass to Noblesville, and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could develop some kind of story that tied in this man and Roberts Settlement to the Frederick Douglass visit? And at some point, I had read Celeste’s piece maybe three months after the (Polk Street Review) came out … That’s when a light bulb went off. I thought, there’s the person who could maybe take this little idea and turn it into something.”

So, beginning about one year ago, the two formed their partnership and received a $3,000 grant to produce the play, a partnership between Hamilton County Tourism, Roberts Settlement, Main Street Productions, Nickel Plate Arts and Logan Street Sanctuary.

“I said, ‘Play? I’ve never written a play.’ It was intriguing, and I thought, well, OK. I’ll try this,” Williams said.

At that point, Williams said she signed up for the beginning playwright class at the Indiana Writers Center with the goal of beginning the play.

“So, I wrote this perfectly terrible 10-minute play, but it was kind of the start of the thought of how I was going to mesh these two disparate pieces together to make some kind of story,” Williams said. “Then I took advanced class, expanded the play, tweaked it and perfected it.”

The two-act play centers on a meeting on a train of Douglass and William Roberts as Douglass travels to Noblesville in 1880 for a political rally. From there, the play features flashbacks to Douglass’ childhood and younger life.

“As the play evolved, one of the things that we want to accomplish is to highlight issues, issues that were present in 1880, and how they may be relevant and resonate to today,” Glover said. “We think this play does a great job of bringing that out, and in the conversations that we have as part of this play, we hope that people will want to engage on those topics.”

Mirline Cronin, left, plays both Harriet Bailey and Louann Rhodes, and Austin Davis plays Frederick Douglass as a young man. (Photos by Sadie Hunter)

Mirline Cronin, left, plays both Harriet Bailey and Louann Rhodes, and Austin Davis plays Frederick Douglass as a young man. (Photos by Sadie Hunter)

WANT TO GO?

What: “More Light: Douglass Returns.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 5, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 6. The Nov. 6 performance will be followed by a Q&A, when two speakers will lead a discussion following the play. John R. McKivigan is a history professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and editor of The Frederick Douglass Papers, an extensive series of Douglass’ writings, speeches and interviews.

Where: Logan Street Sanctuary, 1274 Logan St., Noblesville.

Cost: $15/adults, $10/students and senior citizens.

Buy tickets: squareup.com/store/nickel-plate-arts/item/more-light or call 317-452-3690.

Fesmire

Fesmire

MEET THE DIRECTOR

“More Light” is directed by Cheryl Fesmire of Indianapolis, a member of Main Street Productions of Westfield Playhouse and a historical interpreter for the Indiana Historical Society. She is known locally for directing other pieces , such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” earlier this summer in Westfield.

“It’s a privilege to work with new playwrights,” Fesmire said. “I just think history is important and what happened with Roberts Settlement and Frederick Douglass are important to all of us. I would hate to see any of that get lost.

“(The play) will tell important history, but I also think it’s been constructed so that there’s conflict, dramatic moments and touching moments and comical moments. When you’re a director, you … look at each (piece), the construction of it and the purpose of it. I think the parallels to today are very obvious.”

CAST LIST

  • Old Douglass – Darnell Cunningham
  • William Roberts – Donovan Whitney
  • Young Douglass – Austin Davis, Bryan Glover
  • Child Douglass – Nigel Cronin, Jacques Cronin
  • Porter/Hansel/Milton Roberts – Colton Martin
  • Newspaperman 1/Hugh Auld – Thom Johnson
  • Newspaperman 2/Covey/Long Jim – Tom Smith
  • Harriet Bailey/Louann Rhodes – Mirline Cronin
  • Micajah – Jacques Cronin
  • Kessiah Roberts – Jennifer Berk
  • Elijah Roberts – Austin Davis, Bryan Glover

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