Old North Church played a pivotal role in the nation’s fight for independence and has continued to be an active house of worship for 300 years.
On Thursday, one of Boston's most popular tourist attractions is also, for the first time, a theater hosting an original play.
“Revolution's Edge,” set the day before the start of the American Revolution, is a dramatic imagining of the interactions of three real people with different views whose lives are about to be upended by the impending war, and explores what the events will mean for their families.
The play opening Thursday is set just hours before two men hung two lanterns in the church's bell tower on April 18, 1775 — to signal that British soldiers were heading across the Charles River, and to Lexington and Concord. The event has been immortalized in the line “One if by land, and two if by sea” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem “Paul Revere's Ride.”
“This is a moment of intense drama and a moment of pivotal importance to the lives of these three men,” said playwright Patrick Gabridge.
One of the characters is Minister Mather Byles Jr., who remains loyal to the British crown while another, vestry member Capt. John Pulling Jr., is an ardent Patriot, and one of the two men who would hang the lanterns in the tower.
Cato, who does not have a last name, is a man enslaved by Byles.
Gabridge is the producing artistic director of Plays in Place, an organization that works with historic sites and cultural institutions to create site-specific plays and presentations. To ensure historical accuracy, he did six months of painstaking research into historical archives.
“In the end, it has to be a dramatic play that’s going to engage an audience and it has to be a play that’s going to work for a modern ear,” he said. “But we want to make sure we’re not telling things that we know aren’t true."
A play seemed like a natural way to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the church located in Boston’s North End, said Nikki Stewart, the executive director of Old North Illuminated, the secular nonprofit that operates the historic site, which draws about 500,000 tourists per year and is also still home to an active Episcopal congregation.
The organization's primary purpose is to teach — and a play aligns with that perfectly, she said.
“The reason we teach history at Old North Illuminated is to help people understand how we came to the present and then to help people think about and feel inspired to change the future or to impact the future,” she said.
It's a message that Gabridge took to heart. The three people in the play are not fictional characters; they were real people. They walked the floors of the church's sanctuary, where the play will be performed, and sat in the pews where the audience will sit.
“I think for a play like this, we want them to appreciate that the people in our past were real people who had complex decisions to make and real lives,” Gabridge said. “Sometimes we look back in history and we feel like it was easy for them to make their choices. You know, ‘It was so much simpler back then.’ But I think when we look at them as real complex humans, we realize that just like us today, they didn’t know what was going to happen next, just like we don’t.”
Nathan Johnson, the actor who plays Cato, says it is one of the most important projects in which he’s been involved.
Johnson, who is Black, promised himself early in his acting career that he would never play an enslaved person. But the depiction of Cato, and the importance of the play’s message, made the role too compelling to pass up.
“I want everyone to see that we have all something to contribute to our history,” Johnson said. “I want everyone to see that it is not a matter of white and Black. It is a matter of America. It is a matter of progress. It is a matter of stakes, it is a matter of tension. And not just for Pulling and Byles, but for Cato as well.”
The 45-minute play is funded in part by a grant from the Mass Cultural Council. It will have three performances per week in the church through mid-September.
“One thing I hope people will feel is that after they’ve seen this play, they will never see Old North the same way again," Gabridge said. "They will have a different relationship, a deeper relationship to this place than they did before.”