Mark H Directs 'The Escape; Or, a Leap for Freedom'
February 6, 2018
On February 14th, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, a new Directing Thesis Production opens at Lenfest Center for the Arts. Directed by Mark H '18 and written by William Wells Brown, The Escape is the first play published by an African-American, an 1858 comic melodrama about two slaves who secretly marry, The Escape explores the racial tensions between North and South in the years just before the Civil War. Born into slavery, William Wells Brown (1814–1884) escaped to the North where he became a prominent abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian.
"Glen jumped out of the window. Melinda fought tooth and nail and ran. Cato snuck out in full disguise. Now, with only the North Star as their guide, they run towards the land of the free…Canada. Considered the first African American play ever to be published, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom is a satirical play on America, and a celebration of the moment when you’ve said “Master” for the last time," according to the play description.
We spoke with Mark about this upcoming production:
Tell us more about the play. Why did you choose it for your Thesis Production?
I was first introduced to The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom a couple of years ago, as I was reviewing my copy of A History of African American Theatre, by Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch, which to me feels like the definitive general history currently written on the subject. The second chapter is concerned with the earliest origins of a conscious and organized theater tradition in the African American communities of the early 19th Century to the years leading up to the Civil War. It was here that I first learned of William Wells Brown, and of his play written in 1856. Before then, for some baffling reason, I don’t think I had ever asked myself what the first black play was or when it was written. Considering the very few people I have encountered who have ever heard of the play, I have a feeling that there are a LOT of people out there not asking themselves those questions, including theater practitioners, many of great prominence.
Why despite my privileged education, and my training from elite theater programs like Columbia, and having worked as a theater professional for many years, had I never heard of, let alone seen a production of the oldest existing black play? The only full productions of the play in history that I have been able to find evidence of, were a couple back in 1977, both directed by James Spruill, who just so happened to be an early theater mentor of mine while a student at Boston University. In any case, I recognize my ignorance as partly my fault for not having been more curious sooner, but I feel this also points to a larger systemic failure in America.
People should know this play. It is an extremely significant American play just on its historical precedent alone. The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom is not just a play—it's a remarkable slave narrative. William Wells Brown was born into slavery, torn from his family, at one point forced to work as an assistant to a slave trader, among countless other horrors, before eventually escaping and becoming a leading figure in the anti-slavery abolitionist cause, as well as a pioneering author. As Brown himself states in his preface, the events of the play are drawn from Brown's personal experience, offering us a first-hand perspective into not only the institution of slavery, but also of the societal concerns of pre-civil war America in general, a period in which many of our current institutions were formed. The Escape is a brilliant critique of those institutions, from one who experienced their most crushing consequences. It is also a thrilling adventure story, a classic tale of personal liberation and self-realization, which I believe is ultimately the central thread of the play. The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom is extremely funny, extremely tragic, extremely beautiful, and extremely complicated. Just like America, then and now. It is my hope that our audiences will have fun, laugh, and be moved; that they will think and learn, and leave the theater with spirits refreshed having taken part in a celebration of Freedom, that grand principle that is the very core of the American idea.
As a Director, what’s your vision?
I see this play as both an indictment and a celebration. It borrows from, and subverts, several of the most popular theatrical traditions of its time – namely Shakespeare, melodrama and blackface minstrelsy – and it is these traditions that have most influenced my approach to directing this play. Part of my larger vision as a theater director and educator is to develop a philosophy, an aesthetic, and a practice that is uniquely African American, and uniquely my own. I believe audiences will see this vision reflected in the performance, but I think it is important to note that it has also guided every other aspect of my work, including how I have organized the process, and engaged with my fellow artists and the community.
What has been the biggest challenge in this process?
From the nearly year-long anxious wait to finally getting into the rehearsal room, to negotiating around the demanding schedules of a cast and creative team of over thirty people, consciously trying to maximize every second of our limited rehearsal time, as well as finding the appropriate timings and rhythms in a play that quickly alternate between the comic, the romantic and the tragic—time has been omnipresent throughout. It has also flown by way too fast, and as excited as I am to be on the verge of opening, I am also confronted with the sad reality that my time with this amazing play, and all of the fantastic people that have shared it with me, is coming to an end.
What kind of theatre excites you?
I am excited by theater that is theatrical, that utilizes the full potential of human energy to transform the mundane into the magical. I am excited by theater that engages with cosmic themes and ideas, transcends the boundaries of space and time, and activates the limitless powers of the imagination. I am excited by theater that embraces the beautiful and the ugly, and is concerned with reaching minds, hearts, and spirits. I am excited by theater that is relatable, not impenetrable. I am excited by theater that is created with purpose, that is necessary.