In his debut play, Wheatley (A Song of Africa, 2011) illuminates the life of an African-American poet and explores both colonists’ and slaves’ desires for liberty.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), born in West Africa, was captured by slavers in 1761 and sold to Boston’s John Wheatley. The Wheatley family didn’t treat her like an ordinary slave, instead giving her an unprecedented classical education in literature; she eventually became America’s first published black poet. The playwright, who may himself be descended from the Boston family he portrays, zeroes in on the events of Nov. 4 and 5, 1772, when Phillis stood trial to prove her authorship of her poems. The first act shows the Wheatleys preparing for trial, with Phillis rehearsing lines and John and his son, Nathaniel, discussing issues such as abolition and taxation. Nathaniel is a patriot—“How can we ignore tyranny?” he demands—but John is a Loyalist. With these characters, the author offers a perfect, miniature illustration of the Colonial debates over British rule and slavery’s continuation. Meanwhile, his portrayal of Phillis comes across as simultaneously humble and erudite, as she references Shakespeare, John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Milton and Christopher Marlowe. Act 2 re-creates the trial, using characters’ actual words wherever possible. Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, the defense lawyer, frames the case idealistically: “I thought today we could perhaps take a step toward reconciliation.…The common ground I speak of lies in art, and poetry.” The prosecution asks Phillis to identify some verses and list her influences; it’s particularly interested in her metaphorical use of the word “Americus” and the phrase “fair freedom” and in whether she harbors a political agenda. Phillis admits that her position in life influences her writing but insists she was only describing the colonists’ plight. “I am what I am. I cannot be what I perceive others may want me to be,” she passionately declares. The trial’s result provides the play with a heartwarming, triumphant conclusion. The work’s prefatory materials and stage directions can seem long-winded at times, but this is a relatively minor drawback. Overall, the historical figures come to vibrant life in the author’s illustration of the primacy of freedom: “Today we have been reminded by a slave girl how precious is our liberty,” Founding Father John Hancock declares at one point.
Classic American history theater for readers who are weary of The Crucible and Inherit the Wind.