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Fort Greene theater group tackles Brooklyn's conflicted history of slavery

By Zach Campbell

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Nineteenth-century Brooklyn, still mainly agricultural, was one of the world's sugar capitals. The western waterfront was lined with refineries, and the then-third-largest city in the country was exporting the sweet gold all over the world. While much of the North was aligned against slavery, Brooklyn still had extensive economic ties to the South and the Southern cash-crop economies. Brooklyn was built on the business of slavery.

At the same time, Brooklyn was also a hotbed of abolitionist organizing. Activists, black and white, extensively organized within the system to bring down the institution of slavery and the institutionalized racism that came with it. Petitions were filed, letters written, political actions staged and measures were taken to ensure that more black Brooklynites were able to vote than had ever before.

The Irondale Ensemble Project, a Brooklyn theater company that often tackles large social issues, explores this dichotomy in its new play Color Between the Lines, which opened last week and is the culmination of three years of collaborative research with the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Irondale won a $2 million grant from the city to research and write a theater production on Brooklyn's abolitionist history. The show's researchers and producers had expected to find history of a large abolitionist movement. They found this, as well as something quite the opposite.

“When it comes to the time leading up to the Civil War, people ordinarily think — Brooklyn is in the North — all the slaves were free by then,” said Terry Greiss, Irondale's executive director. Still, emancipation in New York was in 1827, years after neighboring areas, including Manhattan, Philadelphia and Boston.

In their research, the group found many strong agricultural links between Brooklyn and the Southern states. “The entire economy of Brooklyn was linked to the Southern economy,” Greiss explained. “The merchants who lived and worked on Wall street all moved to Brooklyn, because it was new ground and cheap land, and many of them were not so pro-abolition.

“They were less likely to upset the South because of these economic ties — many bankers had mortgages on properties in the South, including slaves,” he continued. “Not to mention, sugar was a huge industry in Brooklyn, and the people producing the sugar were slaves in the West Indies.”

“You had this notion that sugar reigned supreme in Brooklyn," explained Prithi Kanakamedala, the Brooklyn Historical Society's historian for the project. “Still, Brooklyn also represented opportunity for abolitionists.”

The group also found evidence of a thriving abolition movement, predominantly organized by Brooklyn's black community. Kanakamedala described a network of “oases” being set up in an effort to fight the racism and inequality that existed at the time.

One of these oases was Weeksville, a huge tract of land in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was set up by sucessful African-American merchants to be sold very cheaply to others in the black community in order to give them a vote. At the time, voting was limited to landholding men worth more than $250, a discriminatory measure to keep blacks from voting.

Weeksville, Kanakamedala explained, had its own school, businesses and churches. “They were creating a self-determined, independent African-American community that could avoid the daily racism and inequality.”

The group also studied Henry Ward Beecher, then pastor of Brooklyn Heights Plymouth Church, who held mock slave auctions at his church to raise money and buy people's freedom.

“We wanted to dispel this notion that the abolitionists were the white people working on behalf of poor black people,” Greiss added. “The story is of a black middle class that tirelessly worked, with white people as well, for their own freedom.”

The show's producers describe Color Between the Lines as a very non-linear show, made up of multiple vignettes that are almost entirely sung, incorporating blues, jazz, hip hop and folk. Irondale found a “tomb” of historical materials, many of which were made up of individual stories of people trying to work within the system to achieve equality and justice for African-Americans.

They set out to tell these stories through song, and in their effort, they found a message that is still relevant today.

“What we found was, when the company started taking the work and approaching it musically, the resonances between the 1800s and now became very strong,” Terry Greiss said, specifically referring to similarities between the 1858 Fugitive Slave Law and the recent harsh immigration laws enacted in Arizona and other states, and also pointing to ongoing issues of economic injustice.

The show is part of a larger collaboration, entitled In Pursuit of Freedom, between Irondale, The Weeksville Heritage Center and the Brooklyn Historical Society, that aims to draw more attention to Brooklyn's conflicted past.

“The title of the project, In Pursuit of Freedom, is such because it hasn't happened yet,” Greiss explained. “This is about the ordinary people who were abolitionist, they were the Occupy Wall Street of their day — a little crazy, fringe characters, but ordinary black and white businessmen and women.”

Color Between the Lines will be running through May 24 at the Irondale Center, part of the BAM Cultural District.

May 4, 2012 - 10:14am


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