The year was 1869. Ruins of the Civil War are being swallowed in the swirl of Reconstruction. Federal troops protecting the union victory and the newly emancipated slaves have not yet withdrawn from the South. The promise of America in the dawn of the industrial era is tangible.
Our story opens in Baltimore with Frederick Douglass (LeCount R. Holmes Jr.) calling a meeting of key players to envision a new, free, democratic nation. Pioneering Black trade unionist Isaac Myers (Darryl! LC Moch), organizing Black shipyard workers in Baltimore and across the country, is joined by Irish-Catholic labor leader William Sylvis (Ariel Jacobson). He had a vision of taking on the barons and plantation owners on behalf of poor laborers in the north and south. Susan B. Anthony (Jenna Rose Stein), considered the “Mother of Suffrage” was included to inject her militant view of women’s equality through voting rights.
Moments after Douglass leaves the three to their deliberations, an uninvited figure emerges from the dark. She mounts the stairs. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Julia Nixon) takes center stage. Acknowledging she was excluded, she affirms, “They need me to make this right.”
For the next two hours, rights, wrongs, race and justice are fused into a foot-tapping, hand-clapping kaleidoscope of spoken word/rap, jazz, blues, gospel and musical theater, animated in a lyrical montage through the lens of history.
The story takes wings and soars.
The meeting in Baltimore was imagined. But the characters were real. Their expressions came from actual speeches of that era. The musical opened and closed with poetry from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”
A troupe of classically trained actors, set developers and musicians turned out 15 musical interventions with provocative themes complemented by 170 overhead slides flashing archival footnotes and images.
The performance enjoyed an air of authentically in the Emmanuel Episcopal Church (built in 1854) auditorium in downtown Baltimore. Seven performances, over two weekends Sept. 13-22, left most patrons wanting more.
Creator Gene Bruskin, a 73-year-old retired labor strategist, coined the show as “Theater for the 99 percent.” Estimating the production took about two years from conception to staging, he says the themes festered within him for decades, inspired by the hopes and challenges of the Reconstruction era. This was crystallized by W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. It projected the possibilities and agency of that period that disintegrated into the plunder of white supremacy, labor exploitation, solidification of wealthy landowners and division among the have nots and their best interests.
“That was a moment when this nation had the chance to almost do the right thing,” Bruskin said. “But like then, the moment is still now.”
He insisted that 2019 is a perfect backdrop to revisit the possibilities. Many key events have catalyzed new awareness including the fomenting of White supremacy; heightened conversation about reparations; 400 years since the arrival of the first kidnapped Africans; 150 years since the 15th Amendment giving Black men voting rights and a century since passage of the 19th Amendment for women’s voting rights.
“Moments come and moments pass. But you cannot freeze them if you do not seize them,” recited Bruskin from his script.
The performance has generated requests for a touring show to labor conventions, civic groups, public schools and other venues where history and politics can find a marriage. A film stream is also being planned on www.TheMomentWasNow.com.
Created by Gene Bruskin in collaboration with artistic director Darryl! LC Moch, Musical Director Glenn Pearson and Assistant Musical Director Chester Burke