JH: Mechanics of a Legend at The Hiawatha Project

A folk tale becomes a window on American history.

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To research a legend is often to explode it. But with JH: Mechanics of a Legend, Pittsburgh’s Hiawatha Project has turned the enigmatic tall tale about a black steel-drivin’ man who “died with his hammer in his hand” into something even more resonant: a window on American history.

JH is a series of vignettes illuminating the experiences of African Americans during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The characters include not only John Henry (Monteze Freeland) and his wife, Polly Ann (Delana Flowers), but also a narrator named Lucy (Linda Haston), a rich industrialist named Engineer (Mark Staley) and a white working man named Mechanic (Tom Driscoll).

JH was written by Anya Martin (who also directed) and devised by a team including her, Freeland, Flowers and others. Unusually, nearly all the show’s dialogue and monologues are drawn verbatim from either the “Ballad of John Henry” or texts — history books, slave narratives, newspaper articles — whose copious source material is named aloud. Much of John and Polly Ann’s dialogue is just a few lines of lyrics, repeated in different contexts. Engineer quotes heavily from an 18th-century technical manual, with properties of physics becoming harrowing metaphors for human power relationships.

John and Polly love, suffer and strive; Lucy reflects; Engineer lectures (and profits); and Mechanic labors. The sourced language gives it authority, along with the pleasure of hearing how the lines change in different mouths and contexts — how “die with my hammer in my hand,” for instance, might be a joyous song for a man finally and suddenly free to labor for his own bread. The singing, by Freeland, Flowers and Haston, will alternately rouse you and break your heart.

Yet the overarching point — made on Britton Mauk’s epic set of weathered wood, suggesting slave ships and factories — is that John Henry was likely a real person: a Civil War veteran jailed on scant pretext only to work on the railroad as part of the South’s vast and brutal prison-labor network. Reconstruction was only slavery by another name: That its structure lives on today is also noted between the lines of JH, a fever dream of history that combines folklorically large emotions with a winnowing read on a nation’s past.

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