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Back in the late 1700s, when colonists were just conceiving the idea of the United States, the State House in Boston was a hub of debate about the emerging nation's values. One petition debated on the floor of the building that still stands on Washington Street concerned slavery.
Prince Hall, a free black man and leather worker, spearheaded three different petitions before an assembly of white colonists, claiming enslaved people had innate rights to be free from chattel slavery. All of Hall's petitions failed.
Now, back in the very building where colonists debated their freedom from British rule more than 200 years ago, the Bostonian Society is revisiting the ideas in Hall's requests in a new play titled "The Petition."
"We keep repeating the same mistakes again and again because we failed to see the irony in the things we say versus the things we actually do. So I'm hoping people get to expand their understanding of history through this show," says playwright Cliff Odle.
The 30-minute play highlights the role of black people in forming the nation while examining the unresolved tension of delayed racial justice, says Odle, who also teaches theater classes at Bates College in Maine.
Audience members watch the play while sitting around a table in the middle of the Old State House while the actors debate whether to abolish slavery. A few audience members are even called to play town folk involved in the debates.
Although the roles are small, Odle says he intentionally made the play immersive so modern audiences could make the parallels between the past and the present.
"I'm not trying to preach to people through this. I'm just trying to tell the story and allow [the audience] to see whatever they see," Odle says. "We are still dealing with these same issues folks were dealing with back then, so it's just a matter of changing the dressing a bit and allowing people to speak as they are. The situation has so much weight already, so the connections shine through."
For starters, the play's premiere this August coincides with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved black people in what is now Virginia.
Fast forward about 150 years, several of the nation’s founding father were just beginning to develop ideas of their own freedom from British rule when Hall filed his second petition to abolish slavery in 1774. Odle points out that many of these revered historical figures fighting for independence — like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — enslaved African people.
Ironically, the language our founding fathers used to declare their freedom in the Declaration of Independence mirrored the language Hall used when arguing for freedom from slavery.
In one scene, the character of Prince Hall spoke about the language of freedom developed by enslaved people: “The language of freedom espoused by the Sons of Liberty has always been our language. It was ours before any of them knew how to speak. It’s just our time to give it the proper voice.”
Odle points out how white allies stifled the abolition of slavery with inaction. The playwright addresses this point through the character Joseph Warren, an esteemed doctor who encourages Hall to pursue his petition. However, the play also revealed that Warren owned an enslaved person, whom he purchased to help negotiate the rent for his medical office. Later on in the play, Warren's breaks his allegiance to Hall's petition to abolish slavery when he prioritizes the rights of white colonists who are threatened by the British government.
"This is a friend of Prince Hall and yet [Warren] still betrays him due to, what we would call, institutional racism," says Odle, referring to a scene where Warren alludes that though Hall is a free, the two men are not equals. "Even friends of African-Americans can still have these prejudices that are deeply rooted in our society from 400 years ago to today."
Odle says Warren's words share similar rhetoric with the language supporting the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which takes focus away from the Black Lives Matter movement. In the play, Warren tells Hall to be concerned about "all colonists."
The playwright says this critique of Warren is not an indictment but a call for white allies to step up. If Warren supported Hall, history may have been different.
"Now, many people that were abolitionists were not necessarily arguing for equality, Odle says. "Unless you are arguing and agitating for people to have the same rights that you already have, unless you are willing to put your privilege on the line, the job is not done."
"The Petition" continues at the Old State House through Sept. 29.
This segment aired on August 27, 2019.
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