North, South, Race & Class
Wednesday evenings in February and March, The Georgetown Theatre Company will present staged readings of four 19th century plays at historic Grace Church.
Theatre was much more of a popular entertainment in the 19th century, and plays reflected concerns about race, gender and regional identity. These popular early-mid 19th century plays are typical of what ordinary Americans saw onstage. This series will illuminate questions of individual identity and overlapping group identities that fed the tensions leading us to Civil War.
These once-famous plays provide a peek into the confusing ways in which people of varied backgrounds saw themselves as part of a regionally, culturally and ethnically diverse nation.
Each reading will be followed by a discussion led by a literature/history scholar. The scholar will lead the audience in examining how Americans -- particularly D.C. residents -- understood themselves in the context of being “American”. How they saw themselves as being either from the north or the south; as male or female in a slaveholding nation; as part of a slaveholding or abolitionist tradition; as either white, a free person of color, or a slave.
7:30 pm Wednesday, February 15
The Gladiator (by Robert Montgomery Bird) tells the Spartacus story. Although championed by Abolitionists, the story of Spartacus was also popular with classically educated southerners; slaveholders refused to acknowledge the similarities between the noble gladiator and enslaved people of color.
7:30 pm Wednesday, February 29
The Octoroon (by Dion Boucicault) was one of the biggest hits of mid-19th century American theatre. It is the story of a beautiful mixed-race girl raised as white; when her father dies in debt, she is sold as property. Like the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Octoroon sensationalized the peril of a young slave woman at the hands of an evil white man. The play also serves as an apology for aristocratic slave-owners by presenting them as kindly and broad-minded, while the lower-class white characters were depicted as vicious, lecherous immigrants. These stereotypes persisted is Southern literature until well into the 20th century.
7:30 pm Wednesday, March 7
The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom (by William Wells Brown) is the only play in this series that was not widely performed in the 19th century. Written by an escaped slave who claimed that it was partly autobiographical, The Escape was widely read and discussed in Abolitionist circles. There is no reliable information on whether or not The Escape was performed during Brown’s lifetime; The Georgetown Theatre Company presented The Escape at Discovery Theatre in 1998.
This program is made possible by a generous grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC
Free Parking in The Georgetown Park Colonial Garage, with Grace Church validation
Grace Church is located at 1041 Wisconsin Avenue.
A $10 donation is requested as admission to each reading.