Teaching history through art: “The Uninvited”

New Orleans       In a post-Christmas present, our crew was invited to an opening night play.  Top that, bam!

The staging was at the Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses in the heart of the French Quarter on Royal Street.  It was produced by the local theater and arts company, Goat in the Road, which specializes in plays involving science and history.  The setup was unique to me, because the play was moving between rooms of the house simultaneously.  The audience members could move from room to room to follow scenes or were given cards identifying specific charters they might traipse behind if they chose.  You could watch your parts of the play for forty minutes and then after a bell noted the end of the play, you could do it all over again to catch scenes you might have missed in different rooms or floors of the house.

In my book all of that rated more of an “E” for Effort grade.  It was an interesting experiment, utilized the house well, and, theoretically, illuminated different perspectives simultaneously.  I get it, but as a member of the audience it was less satisfactory in reality than theory. More often I found myself in hallways listening to the actors because we couldn’t block the doors and areas like the kitchen where I was most interested in what was taking place among the domestic servants and African-Americans, giving me the feeling too often that I was listening to a play on the radio.

As a history lesson set in 1874 in the post-Civil War Reconstruction conflict the play was an A-plus all the way.  The upper class, Gallier family of a noted pre-War city architect, was only two doors away from an integrated school that the thugs and shining lights of the White League were trying to forcibly segregate reported in Harper’s and the Picayune, by then reporter, and later well-known regional author, George Washington Cable.  The attack on a black teacher, a character in the play, was also real, although perhaps at another time.

All of this is hardly ancient history.  A stone obelisk commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 when the White League fought and lost a battle to remove the black-led Reconstruction government and reinstall white supremacy was only finally mothballed in 2017, and had been contentious for decades.  True to the contemporary battles to remove monuments erected in the reactionary success of supremacists, the obelisk dates to the 1890s, once they regained control of government and social norms of calcified segregation.

“The Uninvited” is an artistic creation, not a page from a history book, but the play is sprinkled through with references to facts easily forgotten about the times.  Hearing the staff and family speaking French would have been common 150 years ago.  The reporter from The Tribune, a black paper important in the history of the time, when such papers were central to civil rights advocacy, was a good reminder of their role, and of course there is a Tribune now in New Orleans that has taken their name.  Mentions of the Comstock Act that barred the sale of contraceptives was a good reminder that the battle for a woman’s right to choose is not modern, but as old as time.  Mentions of Donaldsonville, then a black-run community, and seances were pieces of gold, taking one back to the leaflets the producers had left on the tables for those interested in the facts behind the play.

Hats off to the writing team for sharing such vital reminders of our community’s tortured history that reverberates tragically to this day.  I wouldn’t go back, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

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