By: Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post | January 24, 2020 | 5:03 pm
Can 12 characters spanning 12 generations convey a universal message?
That is exactly what they are doing, according to Quonta Shanell Beasley of The Actors’ Gang. “The New Colossus” runs Jan. 28-Feb. 2 at Knight Theater. Directed and co-written by Tim Robbins, the production begins during the mid-19th century as cast members share the story of an ancestor attempting to escape oppression as he or she sought refuge in the United States.
Beasley tells the story of Sadie Duncan, her great-great-great aunt. Duncan navigates Reconstruction-era America, moving north to escape the horrors of persecution.
“It is a true story of a great-great-great aunt that I found while doing a family tree in college,” said Beasley, who earned bachelor’s degrees in acting and sociology from Western Illinois University, and her master’s in acting from the University of California San Diego. “What I found was just someone in my family line had been sold away into slavery, and pretty much the rest of her history disappeared.”
Beasley used her findings to construct a larger story of an African American experience during the Reconstruction era. The story is set in 1868 in Arkansas.
“It’s the story of Sadie Duncan fleeing from persecution in the South, at a time when things were on fire,” Beasley said. “Everything that was being burnt down, and things that were trying to be built up were being destroyed. When I did my research for the part, I learned that there was a lot of internal war in Arkansas. There was a lot of lawlessness at this time. Sadie Duncan felt the need to leave and she traveled up the Mississippi River to Rockford, Illinois, and settled in the North. It’s the greater story of migration and leaving for something better—leaving for a new life, going into the unknown.”
The production features different languages, with subtitles throughout, as well as a talkback with the cast at the end.
“There are lots and lots of different languages happening on the stage, but at the same time there is a lot of silence,” Beasley said. “A lot of the stories being told are through the silence, and watching these people flee their homelands.”
The phrase “silence speaks louder than words” manifests itself in this production. Yet the theme of having to run away from something tragic to a space of hope remains.
“It’s amazing,” Beasley said. “Sometimes I’m standing there, and I’m telling my story, and the way that the story is scripted, it’s kind of like a poem where we might be speaking at the same time and I hear myself saying the exact same thing that someone else is saying, and it’s about having to flee violence. Maybe something was burned down, or someone was killed, or someone was about to be killed, or you’re fleeing from persecution.”
Despite the show spanning centuries, the elements of persecution remain. Beasley referred to the constant dehumanization, creating a sense of the other.
“It’s treating people like they’re inhuman,” she said. “Having to bring someone to a lower standard to do these things to them, and that has been happening since the beginning of time.”