SPOTLIGHT: Thu., Feb. 9 — Stage/ Read PGH City Paper Article Here
John Henry was a legend — and he was also a real person. So contends Scott Reynolds Nelson in his 2006 book Steel Drivin’ Man, which located the 19th-century inspiration for the John Henry folk tale in a former African-American Union soldier who, imprisoned for theft, ended up a convict who was leased out to blast railroad tunnels through the Alleghenies in West Virginia.
Steel Drivin’ Man was a key inspiration for theater artist Anya Martin in conceiving JH: Mechanics of a Legend. The play was devised for her Hiawatha Project by Martin, Monteze Freeland, Kyle Bostian, Tom Driscoll and Delana Flowers; following its compelling work-in-progress debut in 2015, as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series, it returns in a full-length version for its premiere production, Feb. 9-18 at the August Wilson Center.
The script, unconventionally, is mostly a collage artfully assembled from direct quotes from found sources ranging from slave narratives to modern scholarly studies. John Henry (played by Freeland) and his wife, Polly (Flowers), traverse a landscape of the Reconstruction-era South where what’s being rebuilt is the machine that turned the slavery on which America’s wealth was founded into inmate labor and other forms of exploitation of African Americans. That machine is embodied by the characters of The Engineer and The Mechanic, some of whose dialogue is drawn from the book Science of Mechanics. The plentiful music, composed of excerpts and iterations, all a capella, of the oft-sung folk song “John Henry,” comes courtesy of musical direction by Caroline Wazenegger. The play’s full-length version also features a new character, Lucy (Linda Haston), a later version of Polly who serves as a narrator.
JH also intentionally finds parallels between the racial injustices of John Henry’s time and those of today, when labor camps have been replaced by the prison-industrial complex. Staging the show, she says, “You’re working with a lot of ghosts in the room.”
— Bill O’Driscoll