St. John Drama Club Presents the Characters of Emancipation Day

Eight years after the St. John Drama Club presented its first original Emancipation Day performance, retired teacher turned playwright Rosa Samuel told the group she was done. But then club member Lucinda Jurgen made a personal appeal. The result was a new production, delivered in time for the 175th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Danish West Indies.

Enslaved Characters in Revolt as Anna Heegaard confronts Peter Von Scholten. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

About 200 residents and visitors gathered under the tents set up in Slimman’s Parking Lot to share what has become a tradition. A Quadrille troupe dressed in madras, young interpretative dancers, and bamboula performers dressed in white started off the show. The Echo People pounded rhythm on the congas.

Then came the drama club in a parade up the street, dressed in billowy skirts, head ties, and wrapped in chains. Their freedom tale was told by Pat Harley in the character of an elderly mother whose daughter, Anna Heegaard, played a major role.

Drama Club Performers Entering the Performance Space at Slimman’s Parking Lot. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

As the mistress of Danish Governor General Peter Von Scholten, Heegaard advocated for the rights of free Black people on the island of St. Croix. Those efforts became pivotal on July 2,3 and 4 in 1848, as free people joined with those still enslaved to demand an end to slavery.

Von Scholten issued the Emancipation Proclamation on July 3, 1848. As tensions mounted, fires broke out near Frederiksted and protestors formed a march. Word of slavery’s end reached St. Thomas and St. John one day later.

Pat Harley plays narrator for Emancipation Day tale. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

Samuel said she felt her playwriting days were over in 2022, but Jurgen asked her for one more. “I swore that last year was my last year, but in the end Cindy came to me and said, ‘Rosa, please help us; please help us,’ and I started feeling guilty. At about 12 o’clock one night I got up and started to write. I took it to the group and they liked it. It took about three weeks to put it together,” Samuel said.

Drama club presenter Pam Richards read a historical account of events as they unfolded over the three historic days. Author and genealogist Nadine Marchena read the names of protestors killed on St. Croix during the tumult. Audience members read the names of those on St. John who received word of slavery’s end on July 4, 1848.

“We haven’t gotten all the gains we were to get. We are still working on it. Some of it has to come from within,” Marchena said.

St. John cultural drummers from the Echo People provided percussion for emphasis. V.I. For Life Quadrille Dancers, the 340 Society and dancers from St. John School of the Arts performed an interpretive dance. The Caribbean Ritual Dancers pulled audience members up to the performance space for an impromptu bamboula lesson.

Carribean Ritual Dancer Chaniesa James shows St. John Administrator Shakima Jones-Sprauve some bamboula moves. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

The Department of Tourism Division of Festivals presented awards to several club members as part of this year’s 175th Emancipation celebration. Honored on Monday were Rosa Samuel, Pam Richards, Alecia Wells, Gilbert Sprauve, and Myrna George. Each received a commemorative plaque at the end of the show.