Pittsburgh, PA – At a time when issues of racial justice constantly simmer and repeatedly boil over all across the country, one local theatre company looks to the nation’s past for insights into contemporary inequalities as it creates an original play aimed at illuminating the underlying basis for current conflicts.
Hiawatha Project, a Pittsburgh based performance company, will present an original work entitled JH: Mechanics of a Legend – based on the legend of John Henry – at the August Wilson Center in February 2017. In the legacy left to us in song by early American minstrels and echoed today by Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen – the mighty railroad man races a steam drill to his death and leaves his fabled hammer to Polly Ann, his mysterious lover.
According to Monteze Freeland, who plays the title character and also co-wrote parts of the show, “John Henry’s spirit lives in every black man. His story is my story. I feel my father Gary and my grandfather Walter every time I step into the rehearsal room.” For Freeland inhabiting that legacy hasn’t been easy, but he embraces the challenge so that “the world will never forget our sacrifice.”
Most members of the JH core creative team, including Freeland, have been participating in Hiawatha’s development process since September 2014. Right now the group meets for monthly workshops in preparation for a standard rehearsal period in January. While the primary goal is to mount a production that will entertain and enlighten audiences, the company emphasizes the process as much as the product. Hiawatha Project values genuine collaboration and seeks to include an array of voices in its artistic decision-making.
Delana Flowers plays the role of John Henry’s wife Polly Ann, who herself must contend with forces of discrimination as she strives to survive and thrive in the post-“emancipation” world. Flowers says participating in the project “brought me to the realization that art should cause questions and conversations, introspection, and re-evaluation. It should be a mirror and a window, like this piece.”
JH: Mechanics of a Legend is meant to be a moving theatrical experience for black and white audiences about our shared and often difficult history as Americans. The piece aims to honor the legend of John Henry as the only African-American folktale hero, as well as celebrate the rich African-American oral history traditions that inspired the legend. The story of John Henry is about a man racing a machine, heroically beating that machine for a moment, and then tragically dying from the effort.
That machine as revealed in JH: Mechanics of a Legend through the metaphor of the stage is the systematic machinations of white power and privilege. The work poetically reveals America’s past and present economic connections to slavery and slave labor. It will help audiences better realize America’s brutal and capitalistic history of slavery before the Civil War and recognize the disempowerment and subjugation of many African Americans after the war. The historical John Henry was enslaved as a member of a railroad chain gang and died as a result.
Hiawatha Artistic Director, co-writer and director of the work Anya Martin says, “I first became interested in the legend of John Henry because of the ‘Man Against Machine’ aspects of the story. As an artist I was asking, ‘What machines are we racing against today?’ I thought I would be creating a work about cell phones and social media – but then after reading Scott Nelson’s book, Steel Drivin’ Man, the concept for this piece took an about-face. I realized it wasn’t technology that killed John Henry. It wasn’t the steam drill. It was unjust social systems – social machines – the machines of racism, capitalism, and industrialization. The show went down a completely different road after that, and the process has been about honoring that artistic journey.”
JH: Mechanics of a Legend had a work-in-progress showing in April 2015 at the New Hazlett Theater as part of that venue’s competitive CSA (Community Supported Art) Performance Series. Audience members said the show was “a scary realization of the chains we still wear today” and brought a realization of “the lack of complete history I learned in school.” The show was praised as “deeply moving and intellectually stimulating” and “So powerful and well done.” (See links below for a video highlight of this workshop showing.)
Like the current phase of development, the earlier one coincided with widespread racial unrest, taking place in the midst of protests over the lack of criminal charges in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police, as well as the fatal police shooting of young Tamir Rice in nearby Cleveland. In the context of such events, then and now, dramaturg Kyle Bostian says he’s found the creative process cathartic, noting his gratitude for having an outlet for channeling his grief and outrage into productive, meaningful work.
The parallels implicit in the piece between present-day and late-nineteenth-century black life encompass far more than police violence. If Hiawatha Project succeeds in its goals, JH: Mechanics of a Legend will leave audiences reflecting on myriad ways in which African- Americans continue to be shackled by — and continue to resist — oppression. In the meantime, the artists involved in the project will continue to bring their diverse backgrounds together in the safe space they’ve established to explore sensitive topics and share personal experience for the sake of making art with social impact.
Hiawatha Project was recently awarded a prestigious August Wilson Center Programming grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to present JH: Mechanics of a Legend at the August Wilson Center in February 2017. The company has also received generous support from
the Brooks Foundation, Opportunity Fund, and the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Grant program.
Hiawatha Project is an original performance company that explores specific social questions through myth, free association, and movement. http://www.hiawathaproject.org
Watch a highlight video from the workshop performance of JH: Mechanics of a Legend https://hiawathaproject.org/2015/12/03/jhmechanics-of-a-legend-workshop- presentation-highlight-video/
Press Contact for JH: Mechanics of a Legend:
Tené Croom Communications 412-478-1815