REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
It was the mule that got to her.
Marcia E. Cole, the author of A Matter of Worth, now playing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater, was at the Maryland Historical Society Museum, poring over a list of property items sold upon the death of Caleb Goodwin, a Baltimore County landowner, in 1855.
The property included animals, and, of course, slaves.
Two entries caught her eye.
The first: “One Negro woman, Hannah, 73 years – $1”
The other: “One old mule called Coby – $5”
The old mule was worth more than the old slave woman.
In A Matter of Worth, presented by Live Garra Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, the 73-year-old slave Hannah (in a compelling performance by Judy Leak) becomes the narrator and voice of conscience for the slaves of the Goodwin plantation.
Through her stories, we enter the brutal world of antebellum slavery in Baltimore County, Maryland. We are brought there through the device of a written account, read by a modern-day teacher, Ms. Memory (played by Karen Lawrence) to her pupils (Chaniah Taylor, Khari Dawson, and Jonathan Walker).
The narrative moves us from the present to the mid-19th Century, accompanied by the chant of an unseen auctioneer, selling off slaves. The lights come up on two unnamed young slave women (Antoinette Greene-Fisher and Christa Bennett) picking cotton, and a man (Clyde McKnight) poking at the ground with a hoe. On the stoop of a slave cabin, Hannah declares that, at seventy-three years, she has endured a great deal, but “I still got my right mind,” and she begins her story.
Her first reminiscence is of slaves being called out to witness a flogging – a scene painfully reminiscent of the Appel in German concentration camps. As she recounts the gruesome scene, she looks up to the brutally hot sky and says, “That sun ain’t fooling.”
Her narrative moves quickly to the illness and death of Master Goodwin – the cause, at first, for rejoicing, then terror, as the realization sets in that the master’s property – including the animals and the slaves – must all be sold off.
From this point, the play moves – slowly, steadily, like a Greek tragedy – toward the inevitable auction of Master Goodwin’s property. There are gospel and slave songs, and scenes of floggings, slave hunting, and pre-auction scrutiny of slaves put up for sale. As Hannah narrates, her three unnamed fellow slaves serve as a Greek chorus, acting out the scenes with masks, singing, dancing, and reciting Bible accounts of the creation.
As the auction chant begins, the white gentlemen overseeing the auction write down the name, gender, age, and selling price of each animal and slave. Hannah observes wryly that a slave named Margaret “took airs because she went for three hundred dollars.” The auction is punctuated by an enumeration of six classes of slaves, based on their skills, though color often trumped position: “The whiter you are, the better, even if you’re black.”
As the auction ritual continues, the children of Ms. Memory’s class are brought in and made to stand, eyes down and immobile, scrutinized by potential buyers. Slaves and animals are compared; the Greek chorus acts out the mannerisms of mules as the condition of slaves and mules is compared: “I worked harder, but they was better fed.”
Finally, the roll call of slaves and animals – their names, ages, and selling prices – reaches a crescendo, and Hannah cries out, “One dollar ain’t enough! God is the only one who can determine my worth!” As Ms. Memory and the other slaves move to Hannah, she raises her voice in final praise of the blessed ones who “endured and paved a way for the future.”
The script is strong, the acting solid across the board, and Judy Leak as Hannah is remarkable – but the story that hurts, as it has to. There are very few light moments, but many memorable ones. Scenes sometimes end tentatively, instead of flowing one to another, but that’s a minor flaw that will improve with additional performances.
A Matter of Worth is a play worth seeing, for memory’s sake. As Hannah says, “some things are best not forgotten.”
By Marcia E. Cole; directed by Wanda Whiteside; set by Harlan Penn; props by Dulcinea Bowers; stage manager, Vicki Sussman; managing director, Carol Blue. At Silver Spring Black Box Theater, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring MD. September 16-24.
• Wed, 9/16 – Fri, 9/18: 8 pm
• Sat, 9/19 – Sun, 9/20: 5 pm & 8 pm
• Wed, 9/23 – Thu, 9/24: 8 pm
Running time: one hour (no intermission)
Cast: Christa Bennett, Khari Dawson, Antoinette Greene-Fisher, Karen Lawrence, Judy Leak, Clyde McKnight, Chaniah Taylor, and Jonathan Waller
Getting there: Traveling to the Silver Spring Black Box Theater by public transportation is about as easy as it gets. Catch the Red Line Metro at the Takoma station; look for trains heading north to Silver Spring or Glenmont. Get off at the Silver Spring station and walk north up Colesville Road to the theater. Total transit time: about 15 minutes (after you catch the train). Rugged individualists may prefer the 37-minute walk along Fenton Avenue into Silver Spring.