Enslaved by Washington,
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
"THIRST FOR FREEDOM"
ONA STAINES LINKS
[ New | Site Map | Talk | Store | Mail ]