One of the most emotional scenes in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary series for me is when the spiritual song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” plays while a myriad of photographs show slaves working plantations. I recall that I initially found this song rather unsettling with its crescendo of multiple singers that give a haunting realism to those pictures. A short video of this song in the documentary is linked below.
I thought of this song when twenty students and I recently attended the First Stage performance of A Midnight Cry, which is an adapted story of the true story of the runaway slave Caroline Quarlls who rode the Underground Railroad through Wisconsin. Spirituals like the one referenced above were used throughout this musical to explain slave reactions and feelings to a whipping and other events that they were not able to express in public. A Midnight Cry is one of three stops on our ongoing study of slavery on stage and screen. Unlike El Cimmaron, this musical consisted of a more traditional setting and a large cast that included several slaves, overseers, plantation owners and Underground Railroad Conductors and Abolitionists. Click here for OnMilwaukee.com’s review of the performance.
When we returned to school Monday I asked students how the play improved their understanding of slavery? One student wrote the play portrayed the Underground Railroad’s conductors as “people who didn’t have to help the runaways, still they put everything on the line to help them. I originally thought fugitive slaves were mostly on their own.” Others were intrigued that slaves harbored an “enthusiasm of learning.” The actors’ shabby clothing surprised another student. Indeed, during the talk-back session after the show, one actress stated their costumes were typical of the day and were thoroughly researched for authenticity. A goal this semester has been to view slaves as humans who were not passive participants within that peculiar institution. These comments show how difficult it is for us to imagine, much less understand this era but I think these theatrical experiences coupled with primary source readings are helping us all achieve that goal.
One part of slave life presented in the play that stood out to me was how some slaves were able to live parallel lives. One way of life was as a forced laborer where obedience to the overseer or owner dictated every aspect of their being. But beneath that precarious existence, the play showed how slaves fostered and maintained loving familial relationships often out of view of those who could do them harm. A point of interest is the role of the slave dwelling and it appears in this example, the built cabin was at times a place of security that could be shattered at any moment by an overseer. A slave’s life was one of constant uncertainty and fear, no matter where they were which ultimately led the main character to attempt her escape.
Another question I asked my students was to provide evidence from the performance that helps understand how a Southerner viewed the Underground Railroad as merely a network of thieves and lawbreakers. The Southern Plantation owner and his Overseer were portrayed as loud, crass, and sometimes violent towards their slaves which were somewhat typical of other depictions I have seen. But it was interesting to study the Overseer, turned Slave Catcher, and his attempts to retrieve Lida, as, dare I say a victim.
Students mentioned how they could understand Southern anger over the deliberate breaking of the Fugitive Slave Act. One Shopkeeper hired Lida and gave her a new name to conceal her identity and others clearly lied or ignored the overseer when asked if they knew her whereabouts. Another conductor even took money from a church to pay for his travels with the Runaway. The Overseer’s growing anger over this lawbrekaing provided for some theatrical laughs but this frustration is helpful to understanding Southern hostility to the North and their ambivalence to Lincoln’s overtures in 1860. Lida’s owner did receive some redress, however. An actress mentioned after the show that the ferry that shuttled Caroline Quarlls North up the Mississippi River was fined for aiding and abedding a fugitive slave. It seems he was not happy about this penalty. Lyman Goodow, who was Quarlls’ primary guardian during her escape wrote, “”The clerk of the steamboat, whose owners were afterward compelled to pay $800 for transporting Caroline from St. Louis to Alton, was in Detroit when we got there, and had been watching every ferryboat that crossed the river for a fortnight. How long he remained on watch I do not know, but he never found Caroline.”
These two plays have been great ways to explore the topic of slavery in my Civil War course and I look forward to watching “12 Years a Slave” with these students in the days ahead.