Kathleen Garrison & David Wood
Judith & Alex Glass,
Helen Marcus & David Williamson
KEITH JOSEF ADKINS
L. PETER CALLENDER
BAY AREA PREMIERE
STARTS November 4
- In The News
- Program Notes
Set in Kentucky in 1843, Safe House examines the lives of one free family of color and the tensions that arise between two brothers with conflicting aspirations. While one brother dreams of opening his own business, the other risks everything in an effort to help fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. Based on true events in the lives of his ancestors, Adkins tells a gripping story of love, freedom and survival against impossible odds.
“Adkins is as hard-hitting as he is poetic as he rejects the simplistic notion of a world painted in black and white, either racially or morally.” - Cincinnati.com
Runtime: Approximately 2:10 including one 10 minute intermission.
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CASSIDY BROWN* - Bracken
|KATE BOYD - Set Designer
CALLIE FLOOR+ - Costume Designer
CHRIS HOUSTON - Sound Designer & Composer
JON TRACY - Light Designer
SAMANTHA VISBAL - Props
CHRIS WATERS - Stage Manager
Free People of Color
Family and History Inspire Playwright Keith Josef Adkins
by Josh Costello, Literary Manager & Artistic Associate
A young Keith Josef Adkins learned from his grandmother that their ancestors in antebellum Kentucky weren't slaves. "I thought she didn't know what she was talking about," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2014. But as a teenager he began researching his family history, and he discovered that his grandmother was correct. He eventually traced his ancestry back to a white indentured servant named Elizabeth Banks, who was charged and publicly whipped six times in the 1600s for giving birth to "a negro child." "I realized she was married to a black man," Adkins says, "and these were her children." Because their mother was white, those children -- and their children -- were born free.
Before the Civil War, 9 out of every 10 black people in the United States were enslaved. Slavery was almost entirely restricted to the South by the middle of the nineteenth century, so most black Americans living in the North were free. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there were more free African-Americans living in the South than in the North -- according to the 1860 Census, there were 261,918 free blacks living in the South and 226,152 living in the North. Some, like Keith's ancestors, were the children of white mothers and black fathers. Others were slaves that had been manumitted (set free), and their children.
Free People of Color in the antebellum South lived under much harsher discriminatory policies than their counterparts in the North. Despite their severely limited abilities to travel or assemble, Keith's ancestors ran businesses, founded churches, and helped escaped slaves reach freedom on the Underground Railroad. He took particular inspiration from a branch of his family that worked as shoemakers.
"...there was guy in particular, Leander Ayers, he was free born. I guess he had come from Maryland, probably right before the War of 1812. All of his sons also learned the trade. They were making shoes for the white community. When you're a free Person of Color, obviously you're not serving the black community because most of the black community is enslaved, so you have to survive by finding a trade that is something that people have to have. So it's either cutting hair or making shoes."
- Keith Josef Adkins, interviewed for African American Playwrights' Exchange, 2009
From there, Keith crafted a story of two brothers who approach their situation in very different ways. One is determined to get ahead within the white world, and believes strongly in the virtue of hard work. The other chafes under society's rules and his brother's expectations. By exploring this family and their community with such insight and imagination, Keith lays bare universal themes of sacrifice and betrayal, and brings a little-known period of history to life.
Pictured Above: Playwright Keith Josef Adkins
The Underground Railroad
About 100,000 escaped slaves from the southern United States reached freedom via a network of routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Free black Americans like Keith's ancestors were instrumental in providing safe houses and guidance to escaped slaves; white abolitionists and Native Americans provided assistance as well. Safe houses and hiding places where escapees could rest and eat were known as stations on the railroad, and guides were called conductors. The railroad's cargo or passengers were escaped slaves, making their way station by station to freedom in the North.
Pictured Above: Eastman Johnson (American, 1824-1906). A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves (recto), ca. 1862.
In SAFE HOUSE, the Pedigrew family has been on probation for helping slaves escape-- not just to the North, but all the way to the Republic of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. The Colonization Society supported the transportation of Free People of Color from the United States to Liberia, and was itself supported by slaveholders looking to remove free blacks from their states and by abolitionists who believed Liberia offered greater opportunities. More than 15,000 black Americans settled in Liberia between 1822 and the onset of the Civil War, declaring independence in 1847 as the first African republic and winning recognition from the United States in 1862. Indigenous Africans were largely excluded from the fledgling Liberian government; Liberia's first president was a free-born black American from Virginia. More recently, a series of coups in the 1980s led to a bloody civil war in the 1990s. Liberia was hit with an outbreak of Ebola in 2014 and 2015.
Pictured Above: Partial advertisement posted by slave trader William F. Talbott of Lexington, Kentucky, in 1853.