The last heat of summer lingered into fall at the corner of Cedar and Mordecai streets on the final Saturday in September as we filed into the visitors center at Mordecai Historic Park.”Tonight is not about feeling comfortable.” said assistant site manager of historic sites and technical director Brynn Hoffman as we find our seats in the auditorium for the beginning of Mojoaa Performing Arts Company’s “Escape To Freedom” performance. The narrator asks us to close our eyes and imagine, imagine what it would have been like to travel to an unknown land, on a ship, as a slave.The lights go up and it is time for the auction block.An interactive theater experience implies the audience will take part in the evening in some way, and playwright and director Robin Carmon Marshall intends for her actors and their audiences to be there all the way.”The actors have these slave narratives of actual people who were on this property and they immerse themselves they learn the language, the mannerisms, they choose a name, they work so hard,” said Marshall.The narratives Marshall is referring to were an undertaking by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938 in 17 states totaling more than 2,000 interviews with formerly enslaved people.”In order to get into character I really had to humble myself,” said actor Justin Peoples. “I focused on posture and language, I had to practice hunching over. I played Elbert Hunter; he was a slave right here in Raleigh.”The auction block moves fast. The most jarring moments are the request to show our teeth and when a mother is sold separately from her three children. The show is sold out (all three time slots for the evening were sold out both nights, 6 p.m., 7:15 p.m., and 9 p.m. on Sept. 23 and 24) so we are divided into two groups, while the cast moves among us periodically instructing us to keep our heads down and do what we are told.The property is picturesque in the fading light as we are shuffled around to the front of the big house for the Mistress of the home to speak to us. “We’re educating people, this is our history,” said actress Julia Drayton, who played Misses Franklin. “It gives everyone an idea of the struggle.”Our group lines up in front of the smokehouse and the overseer paces back and forth between us deciding which tasks to assign and to whom. “You there” he calls to one of the male actors, “those are some mighty nice shoes.” The young man pipes up eagerly, happy to be complimented. “Thank you, my pappy gave ’em to me before he died, it was the only thing he ever gave me.” You know he will not get to keep those beloved shoes, and sure enough the overseer tells him he won’t need them now that he’ll be working in the field so he should go ahead and place them on the porch.At that moment our group becomes a family.We move to the corn crib to shuck, and then up to the porch to fold linens until the church bell rings. “Look down, don’t look at them,” we’re reminded by the cast as the family passes by and we wait to cram into the under 1,000-square-foot St. Mark’s Chapel. The service ends with the news that there will be no work tonight because Massa Franklin’s daughter is getting married and we will honor her good news with rest.Dusk is here and we hold our own small service out on the lawn in front of the big house. We dance and celebrate, cementing our little family suspended temporarily in this space and time.”They’re gonna sell us, they’re gonna sell us, they’re gonna sell us.”The news comes rolling down the hill to break up our party and sends us scattering just as quickly as we were swinging to the music.We are going on the run.”Where are our papers?””Do you have the papers?”Voices fly in all directions and no one seems to know which way to run or what to do. Instinct says to literally cut and run.Then our friend wants to go back and get his shoes and we are all torn in the heated rush.He desperately wants those shoes. Who will go with him?We make our way to an abolitionist’s home, cramming ourselves into a tight space, protective of one another, jostling and moving to make sure the older people in our group have seats. You could hear a pin drop when the overseer banged on the door. The abolitionist decided we must move on for the night and so we did, following Rev. Handy Williams and Peoples’ characters as they read the signs to freedom in the trees, leading us to a new life.”At this point in time I feel like this type of education needs to be put right in the forefront,” said Peoples. “It is uplifting, that overcoming of institutionalism. We have to know our history and where we come from together.”The experience closed with the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” By this time of the night, dry eyes are hard to come by not from sorrow, but from joy.Joy because we were free together, seeing each other in the magic of twilight at the corner of Cedar and Mordecai Streets in downtown Raleigh as summer faded into fall.
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