The historic Underground Railroad was a vast network by which slaves escaped southern plantations, fleeing to the northern U.S. and Canada. With hundreds going north each year, the South lost roughly 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850. Estimates vary, but incontrovertibly, a lot of Africans and African-Americans made it to freedom with the help of people who risked a great deal in the process. It was worth a jail sentence for a southern white to get caught aiding the effort, and emancipated blacks might well be hung on the spot. The greater success the Railroad had, the more vigilant slave owners and slave trackers were in the determination to hold on to their property. The more determined Southerners were to keep their property, the more determined their property was to get to freedom. This necessitated ever-craftier means of escape.
Christina Ham’s Henry’s Freedom Box, at SteppingStone Theatre, is based on events in the life of Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave whose escaped to Philadelphia by way of singular ingenuity. He conspired with abolitionists to have himself transported north in a shipping crate, disguised as dry goods. It worked, though he had to remain undetected for some 27 hours, cramped and buffeted about as the crate went from wagon to railroad to steamboat, back to wagon and so forth, sometimes tossed on a platform and landing upside down.
Ham, based in the Twin Cities, has seen her work produced and developed at, among other high-profile houses, Mark Taper Forum, the Guthrie Theater, and the Goodman Theater. She received a 2005 Marianne Murphy Women and Philanthropy Award in Playwriting, a 2005-06 Jerome Fellowship from the Playwrights’ Center, and a 2006 MacDowell Colony residency. Her other plays include County Line, Tumbleweeds, 626 Broadway, After Adam, A Wives’ Tale, Cul de Sac, Crawlspace, and Mad Cow.
Via e-mail, Ham answered questions about Henry’s Freedom Box, which is playing through February 27 at SteppingStone Theatre.
You’ve worked with some of the most prestigious venues in America. What are some of your most interesting experiences?
I would have to say that my earliest experiences developing my work stand out the most. When I was a member of the now-defunct new play development lab Blacksmyths at the Mark Taper Forum under the auspices of L. Kenneth Richardson it allowed me the time and the space to develop my work and my voice fresh out of grad school with the unlimited resources and talent that the Center Theater Group had to offer at that time. More recently, developing my work off-Broadway at the Summer Play Festival in a compressed workshop environment proved to be invigorating for a new script that I was still discovering. And, currently, working with SteppingStone writing a musical that [promotes] children’s creativity has proven to be a great collaboration that continues to blossom.
How did Henry’s Freedom Box come to see its premiere at Stepping Stone Theatre?
The artistic director [Richard Hitchler] had been given the book Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine. He had spoken to me about Henry’s story, which I had a vague remembrance of from my grade school studies, and he asked if I would be interested in adapting [Henry’s] story for the stage. I said I would be interested, [which] led to SteppingStone commissioning me to write the piece.
Did you work closely with the director?
Yes, I worked extremely closely with the director, Richard Hitchler. From the play’s inception when it was merely in outline form to the various drafts that came soon after, we would meet each time to discuss how close I was getting or far away I was drifting to what we had both discussed as a successful theatrical experience for this piece. As an artistic director Richard has a very keen sense and vision for the types of stories that he wants to tell on the SteppingStone stage and this, being our second project together, has allowed us to create an artistic short hand in which we both understand where the other is coming from.
Is any it more or less challenging to write children’s theater?
I think it’s more challenging writing for children because you have to keep the kids engaged, so it makes someone like myself who tends to be a lengthy wordsmith, have to get to the point faster. Also, with SteppingStone’s format of one-hour shows with music I really strive for not only pithiness, but making sure that the characters that I have on the page will be empowering for children to portray.
The real-life Henry “Box” Brown, like many heroes in history, had his less then heroic aspects. For instance, he fell out of favor with Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists who wanted Brown to keep to himself the information about his ingenious method of escape so that it might work for others. Also, leaving his wife and children in slavery—though he had the money to buy their freedom. He abandoned them, married a British white woman, and moved to England. What are you thoughts on that?
To clarify, in the research that I did, Brown met and married his wife in Richmond and they had three children. Apparently, in 1848 his wife and children were sold to a slave trader and sent to North Carolina. I don’t believe there’s any research that ever confirmed he knew which plantation they were specifically sent to. Research also says that Henry paid his wife’s master for the time she spent caring for their children. However, I find it hard to believe that Henry would’ve had the money it would’ve taken to pay to keep all of his family from being sold off. So, I wouldn’t say that Brown purposely abandoned his wife and children in slavery. It seems that, under the awful circumstances, he did the best thing he could do…which was move on with his life. What rings true to me about his story and this project is that freedom is worth fighting for.
Brown was roughly 35 when he made his escape. For Henry’s Freedom Box, he’s in his teens. How and why was the decision made to take this license with the character?
Upon discussing this with Richard we both decided that given that SteppingStone is a youth performing theater, we decided to make [Henry’s] character younger in hopes that this fascinating story will press children and their families to research what happened to the real man. In the study guide that accompanies the show, parents can sit down with their children and review in-depth the section entitled “The Life of Henry ‘Box’ Brown,” in which this question is also addressed.
What is next for you?
The production of my play After Adam at Luna Stage, and a production of the newly commissioned Four Little Girls at SteppingStone Theatre.