I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
— Sojourner Truth’s speech, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
I must have been either absent or asleep in class in high school, because I would’ve remembered hearing about the tragic lives of married couple Ellen (1825-1891) and William Craft, (1824-1900) and Anarcha Westcott ( c.1828-unknown). I heard of Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) who was Isabella Baumfree before the name change. And who doesn’t know about the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm? Somehow, the Crafts and Westcott fell through the cracks, but now, I’m schooled and ready to share. Playwright Erika Cohen takes the audience on an unforgettable and bumpy ride from slavery to modern times. It clearly wasn’t a smooth road to freedom. Fredericka Meek plays slave Anarcha Westcott, a human guinea pig to a quack gynecologist with a fascination with the enlarged reproductive organs of black female slaves. In front of other doctors he forced her to sit on all fours, spread her leg open and poke inside as if he’s looking for a prize inside a box of Cracker Jack. Artist Robert Thom (1915 – 1979) captured the derogated moment in his “Great Moments in Medicine” series.
After a while, Anarcha knows she can no longer work. Her body and spirit are broken and destroyed. Meek played her role with empathy in survivor mode. The real Anarcha was a 17 year-old slave from Alabama who suffered from an acute case of rickets caused by being undernourished, leaving her pelvis heavily scarred, inflamed and open to infections, uncontrollably bowel movements with a strong odor. She had severe scars and tears in both the vagina and rectum. She was under the brutal care of quack gynecologist J. Marion Sims (1813-1883). Sims who poked and prodded her like cattle in front of other doctors. Did I mention even though anesthesia was available, he refused to use it? Bastard!!
The scenario changes from Anarcha’s story of devastated treachery to husband and wife William and Ellen Craft. The couple, Meek as William and Tiffany Phillips as Ellen, take a courageous step in escaping to their freedom. Dressed like a man wearing a jacket, top hat, and a neckband, the light skinned Ellen passed as William’s master. They traveled by train and boat heading North. They went on a steamship headed for Philadelphia, a free state, on Christmas Day 1848.
Fast forward to 1964 when Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) got a seat in Congress and was bold enough to run for president in 1972 with her popular slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.” To say she pissed of a lot of people would be an understatement. Many folks (white people) were upset that she had the gall and nerve to run for higher office. With her recognizable bushy hair and eye glasses, LaRita Shelby as Chisholm passed out buttons to “voters” with a smile and a hello. As Chisholm, she states that she had a “message, experience and loved the nation.” That says a lot when the nation doesn’t love you back. In the backdrop is abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s (1797-1883) famous line, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Under the direction of Zadia Ife, Unsung Sheroes was the perfect way to kick off Black History Month. Ife and Cohen prove that women are the backbone of history. Cohen creates a steady timeline and Ife executes it perfectly. The stories of the “sheroes” ring with a brutal honesty that captivates attention and respect simultaneously. It’s important that these stories be told, if not, then the danger of the people who changed the world might be forgotten then erased, which is unthinkable, but, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Thank goodness for Sistah Ink Productions (www.facebook.com/AEWTSproductions/) for keeping these stories alive and memorable. I do hope that this show will stay longer than one night in the immediate future. It would be a disservice if it weren’t to return.
Unsung Sheroes played at A Place Called Home located at 2830 S Central Ave, in Los Angeles. Log on to https://apch.org/ for upcoming event or call (323) 232-7653.