Concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic could not contain the spirit of Emancipation Day for the St. John Drama Club. For the past few years, on the July 3rd holiday, the club has put on original plays as part of the St. John July 4th Festival.
This year, without a festival village or a stage actors, singers and producers gathered for a private production, live streamed from Cruz Bay in honor of the 1848 Emancipation Proclamation.
Troupe members arrived in cultural costumes, wearing face masks against the virus. A drummer and a trumpeter provided the musical backdrop. Actress Myrna George updated the dialogue to reflect the ways that two major hurricanes, and now COVID-19, disrupted the lives of ordinary people.
“This year’s production, we wanted to push through in spite of the coronavirus. We wanted to continue telling the story of Emancipation,” George said.
The play centers on the character Hilda, an elderly woman in her 90s, who falls asleep and dreams of St. Johnians living as enslaved people decades ago. In her dream she is greeted by a field slave, a house slave, a storyteller named Myers and servants begging for mercy in song.
When she awakens from her dream, Hilda speaks about the inspiring messages she received and how they encourage her to value freedom from slavery.
George said it took about 15 minutes to revise the dialogue. The troupe spent one day in rehearsal on Wednesday and spent portions of Friday, prior to the livestream, rehearsing songs and refining the dialogue.
The production was done under the watchful eye of George and retired University of the Virgin Islands linguistics professor, Dr. Gilbert Sprauve. For more than 35 years, Sprauve has organized historical readings, tours of historical sites linked to the St. John 1733 slave revolt and recently in support of the drama club.
Musician Emmanuel Boyd is frequently called to St. John occasions that call for the blowing of the conch shell, the instrument used in plantation days as a signal to the community. On Friday, he brought the shell to blow at the designated moment in the play, also his trumpet, which he used for a rendition of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
“This has been such a wonderful opportunity for me to be reconnected to our spiritual ancestors,” Boyd said. He added that participation in the drama club’s commemoration has made him – like Hilda – want to know more about Virgin Islands history.
WSTA-AM radio personality and veteran broadcaster Peter Ottley produced the live stream simulcast. Although the traditional festival setting could not come together this year, he said, the Emancipation Day play was one event he wanted to live through 2020.
“PEO Productions has been working with the festival committee for years and we’ve been watching the presentation since it began. With the virtual thing, because of the virus, we have to celebrate Emancipation. So I got in touch with Emmet Prevost from All Ah We TV to capture this.
“The key this time is that people can’t be there, personally but we made it possible for those who wanted to see and hear to get the message. That was the whole intent,” Ottley said.