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CONNECTIONS: Celebrating in film Mumbet’s yearning to be free — and equal

It was, in fact, the perfect introduction to the story of a woman who asked a simple question: Did the Sheffield Resolves, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts include her?

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Outside, they were lined up from the Mahaiwe marquee to the corner and around it. Inside, the mood was festive. A first thought was what a wonderful and competent job Kelley Vickery did in imagining, bringing to life and sustaining the Berkshire International Film Festival.

On this night, it was a hometown audience there to support a hometown production.

The playbill read: “Before Rosa Parks, before Harriet Tubman, before Sojourner Truth, there was MumBet. One act of bravery can change the world.”

The ‘Mumbet’ team with the film’s champions Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and former Gov. Deval Patrick. From left: producer Kim Waltrip, Pignatelli, executive producer Jayne Atkinson Gill, director producer Alethea Root, Patrick, executive producer Elizabeth Aspenlieder and co-producer Jana Laiz. Photo: Edward Acker

It was a good house come to hear a great tale. State Representative Smitty Pignatelli was on the aisle. “’This is not Black history; this is American history,’” he enthused.

Standing nearby, Carl Sprague, production designer, added, “And high time the story was told.”

It was that kind of audience, one where everyone knew one another and the buzz was louder as people reached across the aisle and waved across the room. Everyone was in good cheer except the author of the screenplay, Stephen Glantz, who was pacing, nervous and said dismissively, “I’m thinking.”

Miniature portrait of Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman, age 67, oil pastel on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811.

Across the aisle from Pignatelli was former Gov. Deval Patrick. He mounted the stage and complained that he was not dressed for the occasion as he did not know he was to introduce the reading. He claimed to be unprepared and then gave the stem-winder of the evening, bringing the whole audience to its feet and causing someone somewhere to hope the reading of the screenplay was at least as good as Patrick’s introduction of it.

He was introduced by actor and producer Jayne Atkinson in warm and enthusiastic terms. Patrick responded, “I hope to become the man you described.”

Seventy-five years before the Emancipation Proclamation, one woman was set free. Patrick, as others would later in the evening, equated MumBet’s plight with our world today. “It is a story that is timeless and timely,” Patrick told the audience.

Patrick asked: “About the words that shaped us [the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights]: Do we mean it or will we allow the words to be reduced to a lapel pin?” That began an end of the speech that brought everyone bolt upright and listening. “Our ideas and ideals: Do they mean something? Make them mean something.”

It was, in fact, the perfect introduction to the story of a woman who asked a simple question: Did the Sheffield Resolves, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts include her? It introduced the story of a woman who proved in court, with the help of her friends, that those words did include her, and won her freedom.

While she was not the first, nor even the first in Massachusetts to do so, Bet’s actions were rare and unexpected. So, too, was the reading of a screenplay. There are, as a matter of course, readings of stage plays prior to production, but never before (we were told) a reading of a movie script.

The Col. John Ashley House, 117 Cooper Hill Road in Sheffield, where Elizabeth ‘MumBet’ Freeman was enslaved. Photo courtesy Sheffield Historical Society

So there we were at a rare event about a rare event. The reading was rousing; the audience was engaged. It was a little surprising when Ethan Allen walked on stage. The men tasked with writing the Sheffield Resolves, the date, time and place where they were written are well-documented. Ethan Allen was not among them. There are other elements that may be more dramatic than historic: a woman testifying in an 18th-century court? The Sheffield Resolves being read on the courthouse steps? Bet marrying? Those questions pose another: How do you tell a story? What best conveys the meaning of the story—absolutely accuracy—facts or flair? Is symbolism more informative than fact? Certainly the most deeply researched and accurate story about Bet is “One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom” by Emilie Piper and David Levinson. Would it make the best screenplay?

In this version, Glantz makes good use of the Revolutionary War, weaving it in and around Bet’s story as one informs and impacts the other. The Tea, Sugar, Stamp, and Government acts all have a part to play. As the white community questions its plight and how to ease it, Bet questions her lot and how to escape it.

In the end, it is the elegance of Bet’s solution that makes her story inform and endure. Jameelah Nuriddin, the actor who plays Bet explains. Other stories about slavery in America are filled with sickening physical abuse; slaves in Massachusetts were rarely abused. Other stories about rebellion and the exertion for freedom end in violence. Bet found a civilized way to exert her rights and win her freedom.

It is, therefore, more powerful. It makes Bet’s story the least known and the most significant. The whole Berkshire audience wished the almost entire Berkshire production company good luck.


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