Cliff Odle has made a career of being a storyteller. He is an actor, director, playwright, and educator, specializing in teaching playwrighting and acting at Bates College. For his new play The Petition, opening August 12 at the Old State House, he focuses on Prince Hall, and sharing the struggles of a man—and a people—who are often relegated to the background of the story of the nation’s founding.
Interpretive Programs Developer Jon Ferreira, who is also directing the play, spoke to Odle about bringing these forgotten figures to life, bringing his experience as a Freedom Trail guide to bear, and looking back at America’s birth to find a way forward.
You have worked as a playwright, an educator, a director, and an actor. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to a life in the theatre?
I’ve been in theatre for most of my life. I usually tell people it goes back to the day in eighth grade when I had a teacher threaten me if I did not go and audition for the Wizard of Oz. She forced me to audition for the show. I was gonna go home and chill out, watch the 4:30 movie – I think it was Godzilla – but nope, she made me audition, and I got the role, and my life has been ruined ever since. [laughs]
You used to work as a costumed interpreter and tour guide with the Freedom Trail Foundation. In fact, that’s where you and I met. How did that unique experience prepare you to write historical plays?
Well, the great thing about the Freedom Trail Foundation is that we all had to research our own characters. So it wasn’t like we were assigned characters. We had to do some research, and really get to know our characters, in addition to all the other information we had to know about the trail and the sites. And these were real people from history. When researching and looking for characters who were specifically African American—myself—I initially thought everything was only Crispus Attucks. But I discovered that there was so much more, and that there were actually several people I could have portrayed, from Peter Salem to Salem Poor to Prince Hall. But I ended up choosing a man by the name of Barzillai Lew, who was largely unknown, but had an incredible, incredible history. Lew was an African-American soldier who served with distinction during the American Revolutionary War. And a bell went off in my head, that EVERYONE has stories. Everyone has interesting stories. And so, by having to do that research, I came across a treasure trove of untold stories about African Americans who participated in actions leading up to the Revolutionary War.
Had you known about the story of the slavery petitions before you began to write this play?
I knew about the slavery petitions because I had come across that information when I was researching African American patriots for the Freedom Trail Foundation. I didn’t go into great detail, but I would briefly touch on the slavery petitions during my tour. It’s hard to talk about the African American experience, and not talk about slavery. The two are interconnected. But I hadn’t done any real digging into the petitions until I got this commission.
Prince Hall was a well-regarded and important figure in late 18th Century Boston, but most people today don’t know him outside of the city, and I would venture to say many Bostonians are not familiar with him man either. How did you get to know Prince Hall and his story?
Prince Hall had always been a figure in the background, and his name would come up anytime I did any research into the 18th Century and African Americans in Boston. But he didn’t really become a more prominent figure in my mind until I started doing the tours for the Freedom Trail Foundation. And he became one of those folks that I would have to point out and talk about. Because as I was doing research, I discovered that he was very, very influential and someone who was very involved in the politics of the day, during a time when most people thought that African Americans weren’t very much involved in politics—he was right in the thick of things. It became impossible to tell that story without learning a bit more about Prince Hall. Also, I would get information from various Masonic Lodges in the area that knew about Prince Hall, and were glad that someone was telling this story. It’s part of a larger mission that I take on to show a view of slavery that stands apart from the usual antebellum view of slavery that is connected to the Civil War. There are similarities, but the differences are significant, and Prince Hall was an example of those very important differences.
What kind of research was required to provide as accurate a portrayal as possible?
Well, there were several books that I had access to. In particular, Unfreedom by Jared Ross Hardesty. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England by William Piersen. Those provided a good deal of information. But also, state archives. A lot of what you have to do when you’re writing about African Americans during this time is you have to dot a lot of i’s and make a lot of connections yourself. Because African Americans often did not write about themselves during this period of time as much as their white counterparts did. But we do have access to court records and what they show is that African Americans by and large had access to the court system, which you don’t see that in colonies further south. So even though they were not full citizens—or even “full people”—they did have a voice, and many were not afraid to use that voice in the court system to redress this situation.
What was something that surprised you when doing your research?
I think what really surprised me was getting a peek into how in-tune African Americans were with the world around them, and how they were able to take in what was being said—all those ideas about the revolution—and actually reflect that back at the people, and say in a very articulate and a very direct way: “This cause is our cause.” When you talk about being enslaved to a power three thousand miles away, hello, we’re enslaved to a power a lot closer. So the cause of freedom that you speak about, we are that cause. And the way that they were able to recognize and use the language of the revolution to their own ends, I found quite remarkable. And it was incredible for a people that were not conventionally educated.
There are a number of things in the play that we just can’t possibly know, such as the relationship between Prince Hall and Dr. Joseph Warren. How much conjecture did you have to do?
There were a few liberties taken; you have to take liberties when you’re talking about this period of time. And any dramatic representation of the 18th Century is going to have liberties taken. Even the famous HBO series, John Adams, which I thought was very well-done and was well-researched, takes liberties in order to show certain things and to make certain connections. So yes, I took plenty of liberties. I don’t know of any specific meeting that took place between Prince Hall and Dr. Joseph Warren, but they did occupy Boston during the same time. You can make a very safe assumption that there would have been a recognition, because a lot of people knew other people, and ran in the same circles. Joseph Warren may not have known a whole lot about Prince Hall, but Prince Hall certainly would have known about Dr. Joseph Warren, because he was known by so many people, and was so well-recognized. People knew about other people. It was a relatively small town. So to make these kind of connections is not a huge leap by any stretch of the imagination.
How do you think audiences will react to the play?
Oh, that’s always a tough question. I am hoping that audiences will be receptive. I’m sure there will be some things that are challenged, because you know the kind of audiences that places like the Old State House get are fairly educated people, and some people have an investment into how certain characters are seen. So I do expect some people will have something to say. Maybe some things negative. By and large though, I think people will be receptive. Because a lot of people will learn things that they did not know before, and I’m hoping that people—particularly African American audiences—will get an understanding that the American Revolution, although it’s depicted in a certain way, that there are different ways to look at it. And that legacy—their ownership of that legacy—is just as important as anyone else’s connection to that legacy. There is something to be said there. So I’m hoping that people will make that connection. And I’m hoping that white audiences will understand that the African American experience is not just an “extra” part of history, but is a part of the main story.
This story focuses on obscure history that most people don’t know, and shines a light on underrepresented Americans. Why is it important to tell stories from perspectives we haven’t heard from before?
I think that nowadays, we are in a unique position to be receptive to stories that we haven’t heard before and it’s so important to understanding the whole picture. For a long time, most of us got this heroic picture of how America came to be, how the United States came to be. And it focuses on a small number of people because that small number of people dominated the story for so long. It’s often only their words we have. And it’s easy to relegate everyone else to the background. The thing is—about those people in the background—everyone has a stake in the story. Everyone has a story to tell. And that story is just as important. The story of Barzillai Lew or Prince Hall is just as important as the story of George Washington and John Adams. Which means that my story—your story—is just as important as Barack Obama or Donald Trump’s story. And I think we’re in a position now to be more receptive to that idea. A peoples’ history, so to speak. It’s important for people to realize that their history means something. YOUR personal history means something, in light of how things are, and that’s kind of the connection I hope people make.
What are some things you would like the audience to take away from the play?
Well, I definitely want them to understand that the struggle of African Americans to be free is not new. It’s older than they think. The fact that they were able to articulate this idea is older than they think. Also, what happens here is so connected to what happens right now. Things that we haven’t successfully dealt with. The problem with race in this country is that it is something that has constantly been tabled. Many times during this country’s history, there are efforts to do something, and then those efforts run out of steam, or people lose interest. Talking about Reconstruction, for example, or even after the Civil Rights movement. After the Civil Rights movement, there should not be a necessity for a Black Lives Matter movement. We should not need that. And yet, we still do. Because of the way the country has or has not dealt with issues. By looking back in the past and realizing that the problem has been with us since before we were even a country, it makes that connection that we still have to have these organizations because we haven’t found a way to successfully include this particular story, and this particular narrative into the greater narrative. Even though things have changed, a lot of things have not.
Prince Hall’s actions in this play didn't end slavery in Massachusetts, and the nation required a war 100 years later to end it, and that still didn't even come close to mending the racial divide in this country. How can a play like this shed a light on our current struggles? What is worth learning in this early effort that ultimately failed?
I think that first, we have to understand that race is the great unfinished business in this country. And not dealing with it is what hurts us the most, and has hurt us from the very beginning. So if it’s one thing people should get, is that at some point, we have to come to a place of understanding about how to move forward. And we will always be looping back to this problem if we don’t successfully confront it and deal with it. Which means challenging our own perceptions of who we are. It means that I’d like people to look at this play and start challenging their own perceptions of history, of who we are. And people need to really take a look at the privilege that they have. They may not realize that they have such privilege. That’s the thing about privilege – it’s best enjoyed when you don’t even realize you have it. It would be so much easier to make this a story of triumph, and everyone would go away feeling good about themselves, and not really understanding why. But instead, knowing that this story is connected to a larger incomplete and unfinished story, people need to carry some of that with them, so that people really start to think about things differently. Because nothing will change until people realize the change has to happen. An alcoholic will always be an alcoholic until they realize: “I’m an alcoholic.” And something needs to be done about the situation.
How did you deal with the challenges of writing a character whose story as a freed enslaved man is essentially lost to history?
It’s important to lead with and emphasize what you know. What I’ve been able to gather from various books, resources, and articles I’ve gone through. To get a very strong outline. And then, there’s a lot of common sense that takes over. As far as getting into the characters, I don’t totally insert my own story, but as an African American playwright, there’s a perspective I do have that I think is relevant to understanding the folks that are involved. And also being able to look at things in a completely different way. We want to have defined heroes. The problem is, in reality, there are no real heroes, when you start to dig into history. We have to understand that there are complications, and that these complications are what make us who we are. So a mixture of the information we are given, my own personal experience—being African American in this country—and then, just common sense, and knowing and understanding the way people react. Because the way people react to certain things haven’t really changed all that much. People understood the importance of being a human being.
Why do you think that you have a unique perspective as an African American playwright to tell an African American’s story?
The thing I’m interested in is telling the story of this country in a new and interesting way. And as an African American living in a particularly perilous time of racial relations and of a time… Well, let me say this: when I was young and growing up, I was instilled with a sense of pride in who I was and what I am, as a young black boy. My parents instilled in me a sense of pride and importance in education. And instilled in me the idea that I can be whoever I wanted to be. That there were no limits, and that that was my future. And as I grew up, I learned that there were limits, but once you already have that sense that you can do anything, it’s hard to drop that. So I’ve always had that sense that I can go anywhere, I can do anything because I was simply born here. And that is not something that everyone has the privilege to enjoy. Which I think is a shame. Everyone should have that access. But there are people that are born places and in different situations that don’t feel that way because that negativity about themselves is reinforced. And I am lucky that I didn’t have that growing up. But I think it allowed me to take a look at history and to glean certain things that a lot of other people might not necessarily get because they would say, “That story has already been told,” or “That story is not mine.” And I’m here to say, “No, that is your story.” And I think that if I wasn’t raised the way I was, I might not have had the insight to look at certain things in that way.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would just like to say that this has been an awesome process, and I really enjoyed writing this play. I really do hope that people come out and see it. I have other projects coming up in the near future. I have a project dealing with a slave prior to the French and Indian War, and that’s a longer project that I’ve been working on. And this coming fall, I’m working on a series of short plays about stories from the American Revolution that I’m hoping to have a reading here at Bates during African American History Month. I’m working with some folks from the history department on that. So those are some things I’ve got going on. I’m hoping that this play will open the door to tell more stories in the future at the Old State House.