Stage: John Henry, the myth and the man, is explored in a new play
By Sharon Eberson / Read the article at Post Gazette Website
Folklore tells us that John Henry was an African-American railroad worker with mammoth strength who, with just a hammer, defeated a mountain and a mechanical drill but died from the effort.
The passion project of Anya Martin, the founding artistic director of the Hiawatha Project, has been in the making for more than three years, funded with $50,000 from an August Wilson Center Programming Grant.
Ms. Martin, an adjunct professor in directing at Carnegie Mellon University, recalled singing a John Henry ballad in fourth grade and “thinking how sad it was that he died with his hammer in his hand. And yet, we sang the song so triumphantly in class, our hands mimicking hammers as we pounded out the beats and the ‘Lawd Lawds’ above the piano. Was this a story of defeat or a different kind of victory?”
“This story is the history we are afraid to tell,” said Monteze Freeland, who stars as John Henry. “I think in history, we like to break it down to the people who had the idea and those who did the work — but we forget about those who did the work and glorify the holders of the idea. And when you look at it, it’s the workers who built this country.”
The unconventional drama, with a cast featuring Mark Staley, Tom Driscoll, Linda Haston and Delana Flowers, is “very different than any other play you’ll see, because more than 90 percent of our dialogue is from newspapers, journals, books, pamphlets, children’s books … and those are our lines,” Mr. Freeland said.
After a one-night performance two years ago at the New Hazlett Theater, presented through the CSA performance series, “JH” was retooled with some original text to create a more linear story.
For Mr. Freeland, it has been a long time to spend with a character who embodies the trials of African-Americans, from slavery through Reconstruction.
“It’s a very tough place to live in for weeks at a time. The first time we did the show, I had nightmares,” the actor said.
The mythical character is known as the “steel drivin’ man” in ballads such as Johnny Cash’s “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” and as the title of a book by Scott Reynolds Nelson, who dug through historical records to discover the man behind the legend.
A 2006 New York Times article on the book noted that all workers facing the birth of mechanized labor could relate to the tale, and that he served as “a fascinating guide to the world of the Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction.”
“JH: Mechanics of the Legend” delves deep into the legend rising from the post-Civil War South — a piece of history Mr. Freeland said most people want to avoid.
The actor vaguely remembered that in school, he heard about Paul Bunyan and John Henry, but that was about it until Ms. Martin beckoned him to the project.
“Once I really started delving into this and reading source material, one of the biggest things I learned about was the reconstruction of the machine of slavery,” he said of the period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement
“I knew people were being lynched, but I didn’t know why. From doing the show, I realized that the powers that be were in desperate need to re-create the machine of slavery through a different guise. And they did that through using education — or lack of education — jailing black people, violence and the Black Codes.”
The codes were laws passed by Southern states after the Civil War to force freed slaves to continue in roles that made them a source of cheap labor.
“Throughout the four years I have been working on this show — 2½ with our core creative team — the show has only grown more meaningful and necessary,” Ms. Martin said. “For this show I have clung to Brecht’s ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,’ and John Henry’s words, ‘Before I let this steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.’ ”
A measure of the legend today was on display at City Theatre for opening night of “The Royale.” Mr. Freeland was in the audience and heard a fictional heavyweight champion described as “having the fists of John Henry.”
“It was so inspiring to see that show and then go into rehearsals the next day with that visual in my head,” he said.
After portraying the steel drivin’ man, Mr. Freeland has a bunch of projects on the horizon, including “Dreamgirls” for Pittsburgh Musical Theater, “Wild With Happy” for City Theatre and his own new work, “Kalopsia,” at the New Hazlett.
“Right now I don’t feel I’m in the thick of all of that, because John Henry is my mind,” he said.