‘This is Not a Bill’: Immersive production explores Salem’s abolitionist history
History Alive, Inc. has turned Salem’s attention from the ever-popular witch trials to the town’s rich Underground Railroad history in the company’s new, immersive production “This is Not a Bill.” The limited-run show premiered on July 20 and will finish its performances with two shows on Aug. 17 and 18.
Kristina Wacome Stevick, president and artistic director of History Alive, says, “We were noticing that in Salem, despite its rich history of abolitionist families, activists and lyceum lectures, there’s not a whole lot in the public history realm devoted to black history.”
Writer Alexia Rowe was inspired to put “This is Not a Bill” together after seeing an exhibition on freeborn abolitionists Sarah Parker Remond and Charlotte Forten. Thanks to significant primary source documentation, both women and their histories became integral characters in the production. Once researched and written, the show was brought to the stage — or rather the streets — with support from the Salem Cultural Council, the Lynn Cultural Council, and the Hamilton Cultural Council.
Audience members follow (literally) two escaped slaves, Patty and Phillip, as they work their way toward freedom on the Underground Railroad with the help of Remond and Forten. In History Alive’s signature style, audience members play an active role in the show, shaping the action and the outcome as the production plays out. “We love audience-interactive theater and endowing the audience with decision-making capacity and agency for stepping into history and trying to practice change,” says Stevick. “Even though we know it’s theater, it’s thrilling to watch people practice advocacy.”
Stevick puts forwards the example of a scene when Patty is being hunted by her master and the audience must protect her. During the initial run of the show, Stevick says, one woman stood up and offered herself to the bounty hunter as Patty instead. In this way, audience members put in practice protective measures that can still be used to aid black Americans today.
Given the all-star cast, featuring Kathy-Ann Hart as Sarah Parker Remond, and the important material, tickets are selling fast, Stevick says. The short run was carefully planned to coincide with important historical dates. History Alive workshopped the piece on Juneteenth, ran the first weekend of shows to coincide with the Salem United Black Picnic and aligned the August run with Charlotte Forten’s Aug. 17 birthday.
Stevick hopes the production will inspire audience members to consider our current situation as well as these underrepresented historical stories. “I think that we’re long overdue,” she says. “The kind of racial violence that we’re seeing, this resurgence of white supremacy and race-based violence, we can’t ignore it.”