Inspired by her grandfather’s stories about his mother’s days picking cotton, phenomenal playwright Gabrielle Fulton penned Uprising — a spellbinding stage play about a woman emancipated from U.S. slavery who encounters love and hope for a better future.
The story is based around John Brown’s raid on Virginia’s Harper’s Ferry in 1859 in which Brown, a White abolitionist, attempted to a set off an armed slave revolt by seizing a U.S. arsenal. Fulton used this unforgettable moment in history as her foundation and weaved in her memories of her grandfather’s accounts and her gift of exceptional storytelling to create a tale that will stick with audience members long after the play is over.
We spoke with Fulton about what audiences can expect from Uprising, which can be seen in Virginia in September and October.
Tell us about your play.
My play is called Uprising and it’s set in 1859 in the aftermath of John Brown’s raid. A revolutionary who has just participated in the raid — an African American revolutionary who is on the path to escape to Canada — stumbles upon a free Black community with trouble on his tracks, and he brings it right to their doorstep.
Tell us about John Brown’s raid.
John Brown’s raid was an attempt to inspire an insurrection among the population of enslaved Africans. And what [Brown’s army] planned to do was take over a federal arsenal and give guns to the enslaved populations, and they hoped that they would hear about it and get on board. Well, the communication was not good. People didn’t know about [the revolt], and John Brown did not end up killing as many people as he had planned and waited too long. The federal troops came and took over and killed many of his men. They captured John Brown and hanged him two months later.
So how are you translating this story onstage?
I translate it to stage through song and dance, and it’s through the story of this woman, Sal, who is a free Black woman. She has an adopted son whose mother was her very good friend. Before she was emancipated, they were on the very same plantation together, and they grew up like sisters. When the mother ran away, she took over the care of this child named Freddie. There are other people in this community, and they are free by different means; they don’t all come from the same place, but they live there together in harmony trying to make a way for themselves. And you see this relationship between a woman and a child. You see the relationship between a potential suitor for Sal, who’s name is Bo Jack, and they have a lively competition between them because though they’re not enslaved, they still pick cotton, And she happens to be the fastest cotton-picker on the plantation, and it’s the cause between this gentle rivalry between Sal and Bo Jack.
When Ossie, who has just participated in John Brown’s raid, when he comes, he is singing this song of freedom to these people who already consider themselves free, and not everybody is happy about his presence in their community because it’s the difference between life and death for them, really. So Ossie wants to get them on board with the revolution, and though the John Brown plan failed, they can start a new one, and that’s his hope.
It’s like you’ve merged beauty and tragedy — a beautiful relationship with the tragedy of John Brown and his demise. What made you choose this story?
It chose me, really. I started writing in grad school, and I was inspired by my grandfather, who talked about his mother, who could pick 200 pounds of cotton. And I can hear in my mind him talking about her, and just the pride that he had in her work ethic, in her strength. I really wanted to honor her in some way by telling this story. He also talked about the other people who picked with her and how there’s this kind of competitiveness between them.
But then you’ve also got this character, Osborne Perry Anderson, who actually did participate in John Brown’s raid. He was the only African-American to actually live to tell the tale. He survived and wrote a book about it called A Voice from Harper’s Ferry. And that’s who my character, Ossie, is inspired by. It’s not him, but it’s inspired by him.
And then there’s someone most people know, Sojourner Truth. I love Sojourner Truth. Most people know her from…
“Ain’t I a Woman.”
“Ain’t I a Woman.” It’s not a monologue — it’s a speech. It was a very convincing speech. But a lot of people don’t know she had a son who was stolen and sold into slavery. And she actually went to court and got him back. A lot of people don’t know that. When I heard this, I was like “oh, my god, this is amazing! The education system has failed us” [Laughs]. And originally, I wanted to write a story like that that was inspiring, but I found out that what happened with Sojourner Truth was not what ended up happening with my main character, Sal. It’s a play about when a tragic choice is an empowered choice.
You can see ‘Uprising’ at the Women’s Voices Theater Festival from Sept. 17 – Oct. 25 on the Metro Stage in Alexandria, Virginia.