John Brown was an abolitionist who attempted to start a slave uprising (and the Civil War) by invading Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in the fall of 1859. He did not succeed and was captured and hung later that year. Brown’s deeds inspired an irreverent song in that era (Brown was a fanatical agitator) and Stephen Vincent Benét’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1928 epic poem. Benét was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1898, close enough to the events in time and place to be influenced by the memories and stories of Brown’s infamy—like my kids and grandkids would be by the seminal events of the 1960s. Benét’s itinerate upbringing as an army brat (his father was an ordinance officer) took him to all parts of this country growing up. This gave him a unique, nationalistic perspective, allowing him to understand the mindset of both sides of the issue of slavery in ways that most Northerners would not have.
Clocking in at almost 15,000 lines, JOHN BROWN’S BODY rivals “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” in scope; it covers the major episodes and personalities of the Civil War (interspersed with stories of regular citizens) and concludes with a metaphorical reconciliation between North and South. The poem came out to immediate popular acclaim, selling more than 100,000 copies within a few months of its release. In recent times it has fallen out of favor—and syllabi. Now, it is a footnote to one of the country’s darkest periods, its legacy as ambiguous in its way as is Brown’s. Although lauded by many scholars, several critics (then and now) have stated that some passages are not well written. The opening, the account of Brown’s raid and the portrayal of Robert E. Lee all received praise. However the consensus is that much of the rest is adequate at best—“the parts are greater than the sum.”
As part of its ongoing exploration of history through drama, Rose Valley’s Hedgerow Theatre is currently mounting a staged reading of Benét’s work to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Three performers act as choral narrators who read passages of the piece as members of the Hedgerow Fellows ensemble act out portions of the narrative, accompanied by appropriate music. John Harvey, Brian Anthony Wilson and Connie Norwood are the narrators—occasionally taking on characters in the story as well. All three have beautiful, mellifluous voices that at times make the language sing. Wilson’s portrayal of a house slave and Harvey’s turn as Lincoln are particularly strong. Ensemble members Zahnay Blakney, Rebecca Cureton, Andrew Parcell, Dave Polgar and Shawn Yates lend able support, giving life to the many characters Benét invents throughout his work.
Directors David O’Connor and Penelope Reed create some visually compelling stage pictures, abetted by O’Connor’s lights and sound. Zoran Kovcic has given the company a simple, yet serviceable set to work with and Cathy Miglionico’s costuming evokes the correct era. But at times the action is muddled—I think I would fault the aforementioned writing; Benét’s scope may be too broad. I know some cutting was done, but it may have been a better choice to concentrate on one aspect of the poem. The program lists that the Rodney Bradley and Friends Choir would be part of the production, but I didn’t hear anything choir-like in the soundscape. It was well done, but I kept hoping for a rousing gospel choir to come onstage and add some power to the proceedings.
I do love plays about actual figures—truth is always stranger than fiction. As an introduction to literature and history, this may be a good choice for students. (The company is offering the piece to travel to area schools and senior centers). They could research Brown and the poem online and compare the staged version to the experience of reading the poem. And the events of Brown’s colorful life. I found a wealth of information as I researched in preparation to writing this review. Brown was a polarizing figure; it might be more riveting theatre to dramatize that.
In conjunction with the production, Hedgerow is hosting a series of pre-show community discussions covering such topics as Lincoln & the Civil War, the Underground Railroad throughout this area and Justice Douglas & Slavery. For information on these events and performance times, visit the company’s website: www.HedgerowTheatre.org
JOHN BROWN’S BODY
Adapted for the stage from the poem by Stephen Vincent Benét
Directed by David O’Connor with Penelope Reed
April 11—29, 2012
Hedgerow Theatre Company
64 Rose Valley Road
Media, Pa 19063