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An inclusive perspective: How the portrayal of the black experience has changed at Bardstown’s most iconic landmark

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‘Stephen Foster Story’ treatment of black roles has evolved over time, revisions

RANDY PATRICK

rpatrick@kystandard.com

In Paul Green’s original script for “The Stephen Foster Story,” there is a heart-rending scene in which the owner of Federal Hill, John Rowan Jr., orders that a slave be sent away and sold.

Aunt Charity, begs Rowan: “Massa John, don’t do it, don’t do it! Don’t send my Tom away. Dis is his home, his home!”

That scene, which is reflected in the words of “My Old Kentucky Home,” has evolved, from having Mary be the one who begs an overseer to spare her son Tom, to last year having Mary be the slave who is to be sold and begs not to be separated from her family.

“The way I looked at it, we were actually telling the story the way it was ...We didn’t want people to forget.”

Annie Bolden

“It’s not comfortable to watch, and it’s really difficult sometimes to perform because you know this happened … whether it happened on those grounds or not,” said Angela Crenshaw, who played Mary in the 60th season of the outdoor drama at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

That scene is one of many things about how the play treats the African-American experience that has changed over time.

Sometimes the changes are intended to be less offensive and more racially sensitive.

Other times they’re intended to be more explicit about how horribly blacks were treated before the Civil War.

“The Stephen Foster Story” is historical fiction, not history, so Johnny Warren, managing artistic director, is open to artistic license.

“I will say up front that I don’t strive for 100 percent historic accuracy,” he said.

Warren, who has directed the play for 20 years, said one obvious way the play has changed is that, while only blacks play black characters, they may also be cast in other roles, such as elegantly attired dancers in the ballroom scene.

Michael and Annie Bolden, husband and wife, who have been part of the cast for more than 40 years, have been involved in many of those changes.

Michael remembers when characters in the minstrel scene wore blackface — not using makeup, because that wouldn’t have worked with the costume changes, but by wearing black masks.

“I happened to be one of those minstrel men in blackface,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I was black; I was still in blackface,” he said.

At the time, he was excited to be able to perform, but looking back on it now, the 65-year-old actor and musical director for the play and his wife wonder how people could not have found that offensive, even if it was intended to be accurate.

It was only in the 1980s that the minstrels stopped wearing blackface, and it was also in that decade that one of the lines of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state song, was changed to remove the word “darkies,” a racially insensitive term.

Bolden said the play changed the word to “people” before the legislature did in 1986. He thinks he only sang it the other way once.

“The way I looked at it, we were actually telling the story the way it was,” Annie Bolden said. “We didn’t want people to forget.”

Still, some of the scenes are still too painful for some people, especially African-Americans who lived through segregation and the civil rights struggles.

“When you do see African-Americans in the audience, my immediate reaction is, ‘I wonder what they think. How long are they going to stay?’ ” Michael said.

Annie said she has seen people get up and walk out, but it doesn’t happen as often anymore.

Michael knows there are many local black people who won’t go to the show because of what they’ve heard, but he would like for them to see for themselves and pay attention to the story, because the scene with Tom, or Mary, really is an indictment of slavery, and the songwriter Stephen Foster was someone who loved and cared for people of color, and that is evident in the play.

“The way we are doing this show, it affirms the African-Americans,” he said. “I think the music is absolutely beautiful, and the story is beautiful.”

While Stephen Foster was progressive for his time, Warren doesn’t consider him a hero. Other people were risking their lives to help slaves escape to freedom; he was writing songs about those enduring slavery.

“I feel he was inspired by the real heroes of the story,” he said.

So did the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who wrote of Foster and others like him: “They awaken the sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish.”

Warren said one of the first things he does when auditioning college students for the roles of black people in the play is have a conversation about the history of enslaved people in America.

“One of the most overwhelming things I always get back … is a sense of pride at the opportunity to tell that story, and that’s encouraging,” he said.

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Federal Hill addresses issue of Rowan slave ownership directly

Acknowledgement, education about enslaved people on plantation a recent addition

FORREST BERKSHIRE

editor@kystandard.com

Federal Hill was the home to more than just the family of John Rowan. But it is only in recent years that visitors have heard a more complete story.

“There were two groups who lived at Federal Hill, the Rowan Family and the enslaved people,” said Richard Blanton, the tour guide supervisor for My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

In recent years, Blanton has designed a script for the guides who give the paid tour of the mansion that is inclusive of the roles the enslaved people played in its daily operation.

From the first stop in the home’s foyer, the guide informs the guests that if they had been visiting the Rowans, they would have likely been greeted by an enslaved person. It was slave labor that built much of the structure that still stands today, guests are reminded.

“People want to know. They want to know all of Federal Hill’s experience, including the enslaved.

Angela Crenshaw, African American Heritage Council

As the tour winds through the parlor, dining room and up the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms, the script points out the sofa President Andrew Jackson rested on, the mother-of-pearl keys on the rosewood piano, the porcelains from Austria and France and the special cabinet where sugar, a rare luxury of the wealthy in those days, would be secured in the dining room. But also worked into the descriptions of the history are glimpses of daily life of the enslaved, whether it is pointing out the door they would have entered from the detached kitchen or that some of their earliest duties in winter months would be lighting the bedroom fireplaces.

Blanton said incorporating the experiences of the enslaved people at Federal Hill in the 18th and 19th centuries was a balancing act.

“It’s never a comfortable thing to speak of, and we wanted to be very sensitive to portraying accurate history without imposing value judgments from our modern perspective upon the actions of people in the past,” Blanton said. “But we also wanted to be sensitive to the needs of the African-American community.”

Blanton and former park director Matthew Bailey enlisted the help of Kentucky’s African American Heritage Commission to fashion a more inclusive history of Federal Hill and the visitor experience.

Angela Crenshaw, a member of the commission and Lebanon resident who also performs in the musical drama depicting Federal Hill in “The Stephen Foster Story,” worked with them on the endeavor.

“You would walk on Federal Hill, and you knew there were slaves there, but it was not a part of the experience when you got there,” Crenshaw said of the experience in past years. “That was the economy at the time. The free labor of African slaves and/or indentured servants working off their debts.”

In addition to including the experiences of enslaved people in the tour, the park also got into specific history of the Rowan family’s slaveholding with four permanent information panels beside the paved walkway between the visitors center and the mansion.

Slaves were viewed as property, and were assessed as such for tax purposes. One of the markers includes five groups comprising 32 enslaved people documented in an 1830 tax assessment as well as their ages, genders and taxable value. They range in ages from 57 to six months and value from $400 for young men to $5 for Mack, who was born in 1820 with a club foot and physically incapable of working the plantation. One portion of a marker tells of how he learned to become a boot maker, thus giving him a craft so that he was viewed as valuable despite his limitations for physical labor.

“We can document the number of enslaved people there. We can document the slaves for some of them, probably most of them. We can even document some of the artistry that came from the enslaved persons there,” Crenshaw said. “People want to know. They want to know all of Federal Hill’s experience, including the enslaved.”

But getting that story shared was a process.

Joanne Melish, a former history professor at the University of Kentucky, documented such efforts back at least 2002 in a piece published in the book “Slavery and Public History: The tough stuff of American Memory.” She wrote in 2006 the enslaved people were portrayed as “servants.” As Melish relates those early attempts, local and state management were open to the idea, but on a very limited basis and only for groups that seemed to want to hear about slavery.

Contacted earlier this month, Melish, who holds a Ph.D. in history and now lives in Rhode Island, said she took the new inclusions as signs of progress for two reasons.

“First, to acknowledge the enormous contributions made by African-descended people to our early history and culture,” she said. “And second, more importantly, to forestall the assumptions that some white people will always be tempted to make in the absence of this history that people of color are disproportionately disadvantaged due to their own innate inferiority.”

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Actress recalls racial prejudice

RANDY PATRICK
rpatrick@kystandard.com

Lee Grigsby Evans started acting in “The Stephen Foster Story” in 1960, when she was only 16, as Susan Pentland, Stephen’s girlfriend. This year, she’ll be playing Eliza Foster, the songwriter’s mother, for the 13th time.

In all those years, Evans has seen attitudes change regarding how people of color, and particularly cast members of the outdoor drama, are treated.

She remembers an incident in particular that opened her eyes to the prejudice that existed in the early days of the production.

There was a party at the Old Kentucky Home Country Club for cast members of the outdoor drama, and she went with her “dear friend” Naymond Thomas, a black actor who played the part of Joe.

She was surprised and disappointed when he wasn’t allowed inside the club her father had helped establish.

“It didn’t occur to me that he was not welcome,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why? You need to come in here. You’re part of the cast.’”

She also wondered why the actress who played Leivy Pisa, the Foster family’s house maid, had chosen not to come along.

“I remember that vividly,” she said.

Thomas, a University of Louisville graduate student from Oklahoma who later became a teacher, and other cast members, helped her learn the art of acting.

“They were all older than I was, and some were professionals from New York,” she said. “I learned an awful lot from them.”

The way African-Americans were portrayed in the play then was also different than now.

Evans remembers, for example, that minstrels in the play had to wear black cloth masks similar to ski masks, representing blackface, and that shows with real blackface were still common then.

“They did minstrel shows when I was a teenager in Bardstown,” she said. “The Kiwanis minstrel show — they did it in blackface.”

Paul Green, who wrote the play, was a human rights advocate who won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier play about the plight of a black man in the Jim Crow era of the 1920s. Yet he wrote the blackface minstrels into the script.

Evans is glad the play no longer shows those offensive images, even if it’s not “historically correct” to leave them out.

“At first, I thought, you can’t sanitize history,” said Evans, who serves on the Bardstown Historical Review Board. But, she later realized the play needed to be “updated” to be more racially sensitive.

Evans credits the creative director, Johnny Warren, with making improvements to how people of color are portrayed.

“I think he has done a wonderful job with the script,” she said.