Iowans Take a Fresh Look At a Fugitive Slave's Pre-Civil-War Abolitionist Drama

`The Escape' draws on playwright William Wells Brown's own experiences. THEATER

ACTING students at the University of Iowa have ushered in Black History Month with a historic play about American slavery that, despite its small-scale budget, has large-scale implications. ``The Escape, or A Leap to Freedom'' is the only known play about slavery written by a runaway slave. After fleeing the South in 1835, author William Wells Brown devoted his life to the anti-slavery cause as a self-taught writer and lecturer.

During its five performances last weekend, ``The Escape'' generated much public interest, even though it was not a mainstage production of the university's theater department.

The play is ``a trip back in time,'' said director Tisch Jones, reached by phone, in an interview last week. It allows modern society ``to reassess where we've been,'' she said. ``Both of my grandmothers' mothers were born in slavery - it really wasn't that long ago.''

The five-act play, published in 1858, is a typical melodrama of the period, with villains and heroes, both black and white, explained Mrs. Jones, a graduate student who presented the work as an ad-hoc project. The plot revolves around two secretly married lovers, both slaves, who flee to Canada to escape an evil master.

In writing the play, Brown drew upon his own experiences. While the drama features comic characters, it does not shrink from showing the most appalling characteristics of slavery - whippings, forced black marriages, and family separations. There is also the revealed lust of the white master who is trying to keep the black heroine as his concubine.

Jones, who served for the last three years as assistant to the director of Yale Repertory Theatre, has been closely associated with ``The Escape'' ever since she discovered a copy of it in the University of Minnesota Library in the early '70s. The long-out-of-print work has since been included in anthologies of black literature.

``It's not known if the play was ever produced professionally before the Civil War, but it is known that Brown read it aloud at Abolitionist meetings in an effort to persuade Northerners to see the horrors of slavery,'' says Darwin Turner, head of the African-American World Studies program at the University of Iowa (UI).

``The Escape'' has a modern-day twist, however, in the form of an added prologue and epilogue, in which a character, Williams Wells Brown, walks on stage and addresses the people in the audience as though they were Abolitionists meeting together.

``Mr. Brown comes out, and they've all come to this meeting to hear him speak and to hear him introduce his play,'' explains Jones. ``The idea is that they've come to be pepped up - like at a football rally.'' Then the Abolitionists perform Brown's play.

To reinforce this make-believe setting, posters for the production read ``Abolitionists Meeting Tonight! Speaker: William Wells Brown,'' says Jones. Audience members were given ``I Am an Abolitionist!'' buttons at the door.

Jones says her purpose is ``to look at this document - which is primary information - in the context in which it was originally presented.''

A limited budget for the production actually lent itself to the down-home flavor of the play-within-a-play. In one scene, when the black lovers are escaping by boat, ``we have these cut-out waves that go back and forth,'' Jones says. ``It looks kind of tacky, but that's what it's supposed to be.''

The piano accompaniment, performed by Jones, accents the villain's sneers and the lovers' swoons. ``A 20th-century audience might have some problems, because the play is melodramatic,'' says Prof. Turner. ``But melodrama was the most popular style of American drama during the 19th century.''

Audiences might feel uncomfortable with the comical character of Cato, ``the stereotypical black buffoon,'' Turner adds, but the playwright wanted to create a work that would be entertaining to people in his day. ``He provided comic lines and scenes primarily to encourage an audience to accept his moral message.''

``The Escape'' was first performed in 1978 by the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., and included the prologue and epilogue written by Phil Blackwell, a New York playwright and collaborator with Jones. Jones herself directed the play several years later in a production staged near New Haven, Conn.

According to Turner, Brown's works include essays, a novel, poetry, and a history of black Americans. He believes the bulk of Brown's literature was written before the Civil War, when he was still a fugitive slave.

``I'm surprised that the playwright was able to capture as much of the thematic material [for ``The Escape''] as he did, since he was not a schooled man,'' says J.e. Franklin, a New York-based playwright currently teaching at UI. ``To have written a play of this quality in that period was really remarkable,'' she says. ``It makes one wonder what he might have done had he not been a slave.''

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