By Debbie Jackson
Tuesday, October 17, 2023
A Monumental Discussion Panel: From left to right - Moderator Jonquilyn Hill, Playwright Psalmayene 24 and Dr. Edna Greene Medford
Mosaic Theater recently organized an informative series of community events to promote discussion of its show Monumental Travesties, a play that features aspects of the Emancipation Memorial, specifically the head of Abraham Lincoln! I attended one of these events at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital - a panel that included Dr. Edna Greene Medford, former Chair of the Department of History at Howard University, in conversation with Reginald L. Douglas, Mosaic artistic director, and Psalmayene 24 who wrote the play.
The panelists discussed the history of the Emancipation Memorial statue in Lincoln Park, its early implications and meaning for those newly freed from bondage. Dr. Medford is a well-known and regarded fixture for Lincoln studies. She specializes in 19th-century U.S. history, with an emphasis on slavery. The author of the highly acclaimed Lincoln and Emancipation, she provided historical insights about how the statue has been regarded through history.
Playwright Psalmayene 24 recalled being disturbed by the depiction of the kneeling, nearly naked Black American from the very beginning. That impression inspired him to research the issues and place his ideas into a fun, provocative piece. Jonquilyn Hill, host of The Weeds, Vox's podcast for politics and policy, skillfully moderated the event that considered the enormous value of art in relating history. The panelists also discussed the importance of appreciating monuments in context of the historical time while considering societal evolution. Plays like Monumental Travesties keep us all talking and considering these important issues.
The statue has been controversial from the very beginning and has faced outcries to have it removed because of the unsettling image of the newly freed bondsman, and the implicit message that blacks were powerless in securing their own freedom. That message in itself is a travesty and needs to be rectified. It’s a complicated situation, dealing with the messaging and reality of that time in history. The LGDC has participated in conversational meetings at the site and prepared its own statement about the relevance and still powerful impact of the monument.
Dr. Medford stressed that considering that newly freed African Americans sacrificed so much to finance the structure, without having any input on design, their efforts should be honored by leaving the statue in place. There can be signage and additional structures to reflect a more appropriate image while we consider -- what is the proper monument to reflect African American liberation? These kinds of ideas should keep artists inspired and working for a long while.
In a bounty of riches situation, Marcia Cole was performing as Charlotte Scott, a newly freed woman who donated her first $5 to fund the statue, at the LGDC dinner the same night as the panel! See 19th Century Heroine Drops In on Lincoln Group (lincolnian.org)
This is obviously a hot topic and we’re thrilled to see performing artists including young progressive playwrights keep the issues at the forefront. Mosaic's next show - Confederates- should also be quite intriguing in considering issues of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. More on that one soon.
Mosaic Theater Company is based at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information on the theater and upcoming performances, visit its website Mosaic Theater.
(Photo credit: Debbie Jackson)