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Playwright brings voices of America’s enslaved to the Tokyo stage

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Whether it be nonfiction, like Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative” and Olaudah Equiano’s “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” or even neo-slave narrative literary fiction, like Ernest Gaines’ “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage,” such works are crucial to keeping this history alive.

Just as revisionists have tried to deny the Jewish Holocaust, which is well documented, American revisionist “moonlight and magnolia”-type works on the antebellum South, like “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation,” serve to minimize or erase America’s so-called original sin, or defend their glorified myth of the South. Such revisionist works remain the most famous and popular. Even some textbooks have described Africans arriving in America pre-Civil War as having relocated or immigrated to America “for a better life.”

So when an open call for auditions for a stage production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was making the social media rounds a few months back, I was intrigued, particularly since it called for “lots of beautiful black people.” To my knowledge, all the black people in Huckleberry Finn were either escaped slaves or still in bondage, so what would they be doing in this production? Singing and dancing, I imagined. I’m a huge admirer of all things Twain, so I was curious to know the specifics.

But just as I was about to do some digging, it was brought to my attention that yet another play was to be staged in Tokyo, based on the remarkable work “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.” This production is called “Free at Last: Life Beyond the River.” Mind blown. Not one but two plays, one a fictional musical, and one based on historical documents, but both covering the antebellum South in all its infamy — right here in Japan!

Wendell T. Harrison is the playwright and visionary behind “Free at Last.” I sat down to speak with him about his background and this production, as well as his other activities in Japan.

Harrison is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has been living in Japan for seven years. Like many Westerners, he came here initially as an eikaiwa (English conversation school) teacher. He’d majored in psychology at Louisiana State University, but he cared about his second major, theater — both performing and directing — a great deal more.

“I was always interested in acting — been doing it since I was 5 years old,” says Harrison. “But my family told me acting’s not a profession, it’s not going to make you any money, it’s just a hobby. So I chose to study psychology because I’ve always found it fascinating to hear people’s stories.”

Once in Japan, he joined Tokyo International Players, the oldest English-language theater group in the country. He would go on to act in and direct a number of shows with TIP, including “Romeo & Juliet” in 2014.

Harrison is a highly recognizable guy around town due to his commercial and film work, including the popular Aquarius Vitamin Guard commercials and ad campaign he did a couple years back, as well as being the host of Benesse’s Web series “Challenge English.” He has since co-founded and is the artistic director for the Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble. TATE, established in 2014, is a collective of artists focusing on new and original multimedia works.

“The short name we pronounce ta-te, like the Japanese word meaning to stand or rise up. So it’s fun to say and it has a nice double meaning,” Harrison explains. “We were happy to find an acronym that fit what we wanted to do, but we also wanted it to have it make sense.

“What we do is produce artists who have no idea how to do shows in Tokyo. Why? Because that’s the trouble I had when I started. I want to help people that are in the same situation I was in — wondering how to get a show going, how to book a theater and how to pay for it. We want to empower artists to make their own shows and give them opportunities to elevate their creative output in an ensemble environment — to help them rise up!”

I was curious about how the idea of making a play out of these narratives was conceived and, as much as I admired him for undertaking such a task, how he was expecting his play to be received by a people whose knowledge base, as far as American history is concerned, is limited at best.

The concept was actually the brainchild of Hannah Grace and Amber Richardson, the director and co-director of “Big River.” As they were working on how to approach the slave characters in the musical, the two of them agreed that they should have developed stories and backgrounds, in spite of having very few lines.

Grace, inspired by the 2003 HBO documentary “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives,” discussed the special with Richardson, and they felt that it would be even better for both the cast and audiences if their largely silent characters were similarly given voices. They needed stories. That’s when she decided to use that treasure trove of slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project.

From 1936 to 1938 the FWP collected more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. As part of the FWP — which itself was a part of the Works Progress Administration, a public-works agency created under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program — these narratives were assembled and microfilmed, and in 1941 they became the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”

Grace and Richardson decided to breathe life into the musical’s silent entities using the lives and experiences — the very words — of these emancipated survivors of American slavery. So before the “Big River” auditions, the pair arranged a meeting with Harrison and his producer to ask them if TATE would be interested in partnering with them. TATE agreed, and Harrison took it from there.

“I read these stories, the narratives. Some of them were amazing, and some were oh my god! I had to detach myself in order to process them. And I want the Japanese audience to be able to do the same,” Harrison says.

“I don’t need to tell the story of slavery to black people. We’re not all experts but we have the background, the history. For us it’s personal. But if the story is something that’s blatantly banging people over the head, then it’s not comfortable and they won’t process it.

“Some people can get away with that, like Quentin Tarantino. He’s made a name for himself doing just that. But this is my first full-length play. So I want to be careful.”

Harrison’s play will be a separate event from “Big River,” of course, taking place after that production is done.

“Our vision is that the audience gets to see essentially the same silent characters from ‘Big River’ brought to life two weeks later,” says Harrison, who plans to have the characters rehearse both plays simultaneously so the followup can occur seamlessly and while it’s still timely. ” ‘Cause then the audience will actually get to hear what’s going on in the slaves’ psyches.”

That’s a problematic statement, however, and Harrison was aware of this. Though the FWP did collect these stories from actual former slaves, the emancipation had occurred in 1865, a full 70 years before the earliest efforts of the FWP to collect these stories. So these survivors had all been children or even infants when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was finally ratified.

“Most of these former slaves were kids born into this system, so they didn’t have anything to compare it with,” says Harrison. “To them it was like, ‘I was born into this world where I had food and shelter and water. We sang songs on weekends, and it was fun, and then people from the North came and took all that away.’ And obviously they’d been told by their masters that ‘These people are coming to take you away,’ so there’s a huge bias. And it’s part of my job to sift through that — and, without changing the stories, try to remove some of the softness, and friendliness, because if I use this collection, as a whole, it’s going to give a very positive image of slavery.”

Harrison was able to find some stories, though, that got at the true scope of how heinous the institution of slavery really was.

“There was one where the interviewee had been told how his grandmother and grandfather were taken from Africa. They had been trading with the Europeans and had gotten lured out to the boats and into its hold,” Harrison says. “So I definitely want to include those types of stories, but also the stories where everything during slavery is described as good. The audience has a right to know that some people were satisfied with the conditions under which they lived during slavery.”

It sounds like a fascinating project, as does “Big River.” I’m planning to see both myself. The shows are still in production, but “Big River” is slated to run at the Theater Sun-mall Shinjuku from May 19-22, with “Free at Last” to follow from June 2-5 at Art Colline Ogikubo.

This article was edited on March 24 to accurately reflect the roles of Hannah Grace and Amber Richardson in the conception of “Free at Last: Life Beyond the River.”
Tokyo Arts Theatre Ensemble: www.tokyoarts.org. For more information on “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Workers Project,” visit memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html. Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp