Playwright Kemp Powers
The title of Little Black Shadows was inspired by a historically true phenomenon. During slavery, the white children in the house would each have their own child-slave, called a little black shadow. Playwright Kemp Powers learned this when he went down a research rabbit hole and discovered the volumes of slave narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project. From 1936-38, more than 2,300 slave narratives were gathered. He was struck by the largely positive recollections of a brutal institution, even by those who were at the receiving end of regular abuse. He sought to write a play that deals with this kind of internalized racism. (Read more about Powers’ inspiration here.)
The story is seen through the wide eyes of the little black shadows of a plantation house, Toy and Colis. They are the consummate observers, always present but never allowed to speak to their masters unless spoken to first. Toy and Colis are comforted by the vent that separates their bedrolls tucked underneath their child master’s beds and, in the dead of night, they are able to talk to one another. Like the slaves in the narratives Powers found, they both speak positively of their situation in the house, as compared to the field. “I know n**gers be dying out there” says Toy, “cookin’ under that sun like bacon fat. That’s all I need to know. We got it good in here.” Toy and Colis have never known any other world and they accept their roles without question.
The kids sleeping above them are Daniel and Mittie, a pair of twins. Mittie is an adolescent Scarlett O’Hara, eavesdropping and manipulating situations to the best of a budding young girl’s power. Daniel is a delicate sort, obsessed with his flute and often oblivious to the social conventions that rule Georgia plantation life in 1850. They expect Toy and Colis to serve them, but they also see them as playmates of a sort.
Chauntae Pink and Giovanni Adams in rehearsal for the 2016 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Little Black Shadows. They return to the roles Toy and Colis for the production.
Director May Adrales and playwright Kemp Powers in the 2016 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Little Black Shadows. Adrales will direct the production.
During the day, we see the family’s life in the house and soon learn about the patriarchal Father’s decision to move the entire plantation from George to Louisiana. His rationale is a measure of his ambition, for he’s already taken the plantation from indigo to cotton. He explains that “a rich indigo planter’s earnings are nothing next to those of even a poor cotton planter. And a rich cotton planter’s earnings are downright miniscule next to even the poorest sugar planter. And where we’re going, we’ll eventually be one of the richest sugar planters in the state.” Mother isn’t happy about this state of affairs, but she has no choice. At breakfast, Father and Mother each appeal to their favored child to support their side of the argument. Father’s favorite, Mittie, had long caught wind of the plan and had plenty of time to prepare—learning about Louisiana and leaning into exactly what she knows her Father wants to hear. Daniel is taken aback and ill-equipped to deal with this news and his hopes of escaping to the city are instantly cut down.
As with all of the events in the play, this is being carefully observed by Toy and Colis. Toy is clever and curious and willing to go with the pending move without a thought—one house is the same as any other in her view. She mimics Mittie’s adaptability. Colis, equally tries to mimic Daniel, but is very different from him temperamentally. More than once, Colis has gotten Daniel out of a scrape. Colis is upset by the idea of moving, as he believes that his mother is still working on the plantation in the fields and is afraid she will get left behind before he can find her. Toy tries to gently disabuse him of the notion that his mother is out there, but Colis’s dreams of being reunited with the mother he has never known are so vivid he sometimes thinks they are real.
Although much of the play’s events are squarely of this specific time and place, director May Adrales leans into the imagination inherent in the storytelling of the play. The world looks historically accurate, but with careful touches to enhance the theatricality—the set designed by David Barber is built realistically, but painted in a way that is not realistic. The production makes ample use of projections, designed by Hana S. Kim, with shadow puppet imagery cast in the background inspired by Kara Walker (read more about that here). Sara Ryung Clement designed the costumes and Elizabeth Harper designed the lights ,while Charles Coes and Nathan Roberts contributed original music and sound design, including fanciful slave songs wafting in from the field.
Powers acknowledges that this is heavy subject matter. However, the compelling stories and the theatrical imagination keep the play far from sinking under its own historical weight and there are surprising and occasionally haunting moments. All of the characters—like any characters in any play—are just trying to do the best they can in their given circumstances. The play is not proselytizing, it is not an indictment of this particular family, or even white slave-owning families generally; the play simply reflects the mainstream attitudes of that time and allows the audience to form their own conclusions about what they witness from a modern perspective. Ultimately, Little Black Shadows asks: what does the best version of slavery look like?
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