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Enslaved by Washington,
Ona is runaway stage hit

Ona Judge Staines This story has TV-miniseries written all over it. In fact, the most amazing thing about the true tale of Ona Judge Staines is that no one has thought to dramatize it before. In "Thirst for Freedom" a black slave woman challenges and defeats the most powerful white man in North America. And she does it in Seacoast, New Hampshire!

"Thirst for Freedom" is the exception to the rule that local history usually makes dull theater. Emory Wilson's script, performed recently at Portsmouth's Player's Ring Theater is both entertaining and authentic. With a small amateur cast on a tiny open stage, with scarcely a prop and barely a budget, the dramatization works wonders. That's because Wilson sticks with the strong characters and the drama inherent in the amazing true story.

The year is 1794. The place is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a prosperous northern seaport with a small population of freed blacks living in a society where slavery is still tolerated among the wealthy. A Virginia runaway, Ona almost loses her newfound freedom when Bets Langdon, daughter of the New Hampshire "president" John Langdon spots Ona in Market Square. To curry favor with George and Martha Washington, who "own" the enslaved woman, Bets and her mother Betsy Langdon report the siting to the first family at Mount Vernon.

George and Martha want Ona back. Authentic letters back up the story. With 400 slaves at Mount Vernon, Ona's escape has become an embarrassment to the Washington's. None of the white characters can fathom why anyone, slave or free, would want to leave the comfort of Mount Vernon. Ona explains, again and again, that her new life as a self-employed seamstress in Portsmouth, though she remains poor and on the run, leaves her free.

John Langdon is in a pickle. Politically an "abolitionist" his family has long held slaves on their Portsmouth plantation. Kidnapping Ona, as Washington suggests, might rouse public disfavor. Portsmouth Custom's agent Joe Whipple, brother to the Declaration signer William (also a slave owner) lays a trap for Ona. Then Washington sends his nephew to NH to find Ona and bring her back, by negotiation or by force.

Set more than 60 years before the Civil War, "Thirst for Freedom" is a study in dualities. Slavery is reviled in NH, yet remains legal. John Langdon, who historically was a rebel patriot, comes across as caught, unable to come to a moral conclusion. He flip-flops over the issue -- "freeing" his own house slaves, then hiring them back at low wages to maintain his social status. Wife Betsy Langdon is a feminist bigot, advocating rights for white wealthy women, but unable to understand Ona's plight. Bets the daughter turns out to be both a traitor and ally to Ona.

Wilson's play offers a refreshing near-balance of four black and five white faces with solid roles for all, men and women. Only Ona Judge Staines is without inner conflict. She alone knows exactly what she wants and why she was compelled to run from the Washington plantation in 1794. The historical Ona lived much of her life in nearby Greenland, NH after marrying "black jack" Jack Staines. The hunt for Ona ended at Washington's death in 1799 and Ona lived fifty more years in New Hampshire. She refused to become a celebrity in the sincere, but largely ineffectual abolitionist movement in New Hampshire. She wanted, as Wilson demonstrates clearly, only to be free in a nation that was still unsure what freedom meant.

This is the kind of history that heals. It is essentially a simple story with a simple hero in a complex era. All of Emory's characters speak with equal eloquence. Every character partakes in this polite discussion of the nature of racial equality. There are no melodramatic confrontations, no gratuitous chase scenes -- just talk -- about the freedom of one woman. Yet all around that gentle talk swirls the centuries of racism and forgiveness that are at the heart of the American experiment.

Article and photos by J. Dennis Robinson

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By Emory Wilson
Directed by MaryAnn Robertson
Cast Pictures of the original 2000 production
Player's Ring, Portsmouth, NH

Ona Judge Staines  Donna Simpson
Joseph Whipple  Guy Blake
Sen. John Langdon  Charles A. Noon
Bets Langdon  Kristen Sargeant
Burwell Bassett  Jonathan Rockwood Hoar
Cyrus de Bruce  Ralph Allen
Betsey Langdon  Laura Connarton
Dame Sally  Sandi Clark
Jack Staines  Kevin Wade Mitchel

Ona Judge Staines
Joseph Whipple
John and Bets Langdon
Cyrus de Bruce & Burwell Bassett
Bets Langdon & Dame Sally
Jack Staines

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Related ONA Black History Links on

Ona Judge Staines by Evelyn Gerson
whose 250-page thesis is the most detailed
version of the story written to date

Ona's story in verse by a Greenland, NH poet

Two more Seacoast black history poems by white authors

Slaves like Cyrus de Bruce in the Langdon family

Seacoast black history homepage and walking trail

More on John Langdon

More on William Whipple

Ona's husband Jack Staines was a "Black Jack"

See photos of the Washington family

Martha Washington wanted Ona back

Ona left Virginia because she did not want to
be mistress to Martha Washington's daughter Nelly Custis

Washington's secretary came from Portsmouth

Much of the play takes place in the Langdon Mansion

Washington Visited Portsmouth in 1789

Ona gained her freedom when Washington died in 1799

We visited Mount Vernon, Ona's former home, recently

Copyright © 2000 by All rights reserved.

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