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'A Midnight Cry' Returns To First Stage

The Road To Freedom

Jan. 5, 2014
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Driving past Johnson Park on Fond du Lac Avenue between 17th and 20th Streets, you wouldn’t guess it was the site in 1842 of Deacon Samuel Brown’s farm, a Wisconsin station on the Underground Railroad. In July of that year, 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls, the first documented runaway slave to escape through Wisconsin to freedom in Canada, found shelter there. Deacon Brown and the Milwaukee abolitionists risked imprisonment to protect the desperate travelers of their day. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel…,” they would sing to bolster spirits when out of the law’s hearing, “...and why not every man?” It’s heartening to learn from the Johnson Park website that Wisconsin became a leader in the abolition movement and that Wisconsin’s Supreme Court was the only one in the nation to rule the Federal Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional.

How much courage it must have taken for the people fleeing slavery, hunted by dogs and armed men, traveling immense distances at night on foot without resources! That courage and its complex circumstances are the subject of James DeVita’s compelling play A Midnight Cry, written for and first produced by First Stage in 2003 and now revived for a second run from Jan. 10 through Feb. 9. Based on Quarll’s story with its resounding echoes, that 2003 production inspired an ongoing series of commissions by First Stage of new plays with local themes, collectively titled “The Wisconsin Cycle.” First Stage is, of course, a nationally renowned theater for young audiences but A Midnight Cry will just as surely electrify adults.

That was evident at the rehearsal I attended, in the material, professionalism and bearing of the superb cast who clearly know this is a special show. First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank is directing as he did the 2003 premiere. He calls A Midnight Cry “the most powerful, moving, uplifting play” he’s ever been part of. “I still carry with me that first journey of creation, that discovery, and now I’m also inspired by these new actors and what they bring, their new insights, new questions,” he explains. “Sometimes I hear from people: I can’t go see that thing, I don’t want to suffer through it. But the place Lida [the character based on Quarlls] gets to is such a glorious one! It’s about the triumph of the human spirit, the strength she finds in herself, the strength that’s given to her by her family. That’s a credit to Jimmy’s playwriting. The characterizations are so rich, complex and deep; it’s exciting for actors to grapple with them.

“There are moments in rehearsal that make us uncomfortable,” he continues, referring to images such as Lida’s young sister being sold before the family’s eyes or Lida being whipped. “These scenes have to be real and present, but nothing is gratuitous. The journey is worth it.”

Sheri Williams Pannell is the show’s music director. The songs include some of the most stirring spirituals from the period, such as “Deep River,” “Steal Away,” “Oh Freedom” and the aforementioned “Deliver Daniel, wisely chosen by Pannell and composer Josh Schmidt for the 2003 production and newly arranged for the revival’s larger cast. As in 2003, musician John Nicholson eloquently accompanies the songs and underscores dialogue on steel guitar and banjo. The great percussionist Jahmes Finlayson has taught the young cast members to produce the nearly mystical sounds he performed in the original version.

Of the songs, Pannell says: “They demonstrate the genius of these people. Their creativity was made practical through the use of Bible stories to transmit messages. It’s a codified language. The reality of a person under the bondage of another and hoping to be liberated to a new life is communicated through the story of Christ’s death and awaited resurrection. It’s a good thing the slave owners and overseers were not aware of the hidden messages. ‘Deep River’ is the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s also the Mississippi, the Ohio and, in this case, the Milwaukee River—any crossing that gets you to freedom.”

“Up Above My Head,” a spiritual used twice in the show, includes the lyric: “I see freedom in the air and I know there’s a God somewhere.” It’s sung first in a minor key, which Pannell describes as defiant. It moves into a hopeful major key only when Lida reaches the last leg of her journey and speaks of “an achin’ like a sickness, a wantin’ to know what it be like to own my own body, to sleep without no fear o’ the next day, to educate myself and be the equal of all peoples under the sun….. That’s what’s at the other end o’ this road. I’m still on it today. Right now. We all are. We all still bumpin’ along it.”

Recommended for everyone ages 9 and up, performances are Fri. Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. and every Sat. and Sun through Feb. 9. (often with double matinees), at the Todd Wehr Theater of the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Kimberly L. Simmons, the great-great-great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls and an expert on the history of the underground railroad, will speak following performances on Jan. 11 and 12. For tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit firststage.org.


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