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VALLEY WEEKEND

Telling the Slaves' Story in Their Own Words

CSUN play opening Friday is a collage of narration, drama, song and dance based on 100 accounts given 70 years after the Civil War.

February 22, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You are going around to get a story of slavery conditions and the persecutions of the Negroes before the Civil War. . . . You should have known before this late date all about that.

Thomas Hall, former slave, interviewed in the 1930s

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It was 70 years after the Civil War when the U.S. government first asked former slaves about their lives. No one had wanted to know before then; the deep historic scar was one most white Americans preferred to forget.

But during the Great Depression, a division of the Works Progress Administration asked former slaves to remember. Some, such as Thomas Hall, refused. But thousands of others recalled their lives for employees of the Federal Writers Project who took down their every word. In the end, about 10,000 typewritten pages were handed over to the Library of Congress.

Friday night, about 100 of those stories will come to life at Cal State Northridge. Drawing on four books of edited FWP transcripts, theater professor Peter Grego has created "Hating to See the Sun Rise," which will have its premiere at CSUN's Little Theatre.

Grego thought he wanted to create a theater piece when he read the first of three books edited by Belinda Hurmence. But when he went in search of her second book, he knew for sure that a piece had to be done: The book had been sitting on library shelves for nine years, untouched. The stories it contained, he thought, were too valuable to be ignored.

"I said, 'OK, it's not a movie and it's not TV, but more people need to hear this,' " Grego said. "More people will see it in one evening than have checked it out in nine years."

Grego took a semester-long sabbatical last year to piece together his play. The result is a 90-minute collage of narration, drama, song and dance that encompasses everything from slave auctions to life after emancipation.

Grego has turned real stories into theater before. While teaching at Cal State Bakersfield in the 1980s, he was part of a project to document the rural migration from the Great Plains to the San Joaquin Valley during the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s. The play created from those interviews, "From Dust Thou Art," was produced by the Lyceum Theater in St. Louis in 1991 and at CSUN three years ago.

Slavery, though, was a more sensitive subject, even 133 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The play, especially since it was adapted and directed by a white man, was a natural target for scrutiny in the politically correct environment of a university. Grego's announcement that he was open to "nontraditional casting" caused concern that he was thinking of casting white students as slaves, which was not the case. Nine of the 12 actors in the cast are African Americans; the rest play plantation owners and musicians.

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Early in rehearsals there were discussions about making the cast all African American, or taking the word "nigger" out of the text. Kristina Schaad, a senior theater major, said the cast rejected both ideas because they wanted "Hating to See the Sun Rise" to be as real as possible--even if it was less comfortable for the audience. As Schaad put it: "We just said, 'Slap 'em in the face. This is how it was.' "

The subject of slavery drew some new people to the drama department, including Vicki Allen, a CSUN employee who coordinates cultural programs. Growing up African American in Cerritos, Allen said, she was taught about slavery only as it related to the Civil War. "I always felt that history was sugar-coated, or looked at in terms of economic issues instead of human issues," she said. Being a part of "Hating to See the Sun Rise" has reminded Allen what a powerful teacher history can be.

"For the first time, I'm getting to see images that I never thought I would get to see, and recognizing how horrible this experience had to have been, the most dehumanizing thing that could happen to any person." But, Allen added, "part of the beauty of the play is that you realize that this did not destroy the humanity of the blacks."

Like Allen, several cast members were first-time actors. To prepare, Grego led them through drama exercises that took them mentally through a slave's months-long trip to America after being captured in West Africa.

Beyond that, Grego gave his cast a sense of responsibility. Before the students left for winter break, he gave them a list of books on slavery and many have done independent research for their parts. As senior theater major Levi Nuez put it, "The message was: You've been given these stories, now do them justice."

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Hating to See the Sun Rise."

* WHERE: The Little Theatre in CSUN's speech and drama building.

* WHEN: Feb. 23-March 3 at 7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 5 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $5-9.

* CALL: (818) 885-3093.

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