16 September 2021 • Research Staging Geneva's Unheard Voices

Summer research students in the HWS Theatre Department have developed a play based on the lives of historic African American Genevans. HWS Theatre will stage their work “From the Beyond: Staging Geneva’s Unheard Voices” for the fall production on Sept. 24 and 25.    

This summer, HWS Theatre research students and Associate Professor of Theatre Chris Woodworth have been exploring the history of Geneva, and re-centering the voices that have been historically marginalized. In collaboration with the Historic Geneva, they have transformed archival research into a series of theatrical monologues that will be performed as part of the fall 2021 HWS Theatre production.

Throughout the summer, Anthony Bray ’23, Samari Brown ’24, Sal Fabio ’22 and Christina Roc ’24 advanced their archival research skills, utilizing the many Geneva and HWS resources that preserve the history of the city and its people.

At HWS Archives, they worked with Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Tricia McEldowney and Associate Librarian Sara Greenleaf, who gave them insight to the scope of the HWS collection and helped them advance their skills in using digital collections. They also conducted genealogical research.

In the video above, the HWS Theatre research students are featured in a special edition of #FlyoverFriday. 

The research assistants also utilized the Geneva Public Library and met with Susie Flick, Adult Services and Programming Library Assistant. The library houses a physical collection of Geneva and Ontario County local history and genealogy resources.

They also worked with the Historic Geneva and Archivist Becky Chapin, who showed them the many photographs, letters, court documents and other artifacts on display and preserved at their South Main Street location.

The research assistants expanded their research to include geologic and historic sites in the region. At each location, a guiding question for the group became, “how does this site ‘perform’ history?” After a field trip to Watkins Glen State Park and She-qua-ga Falls in Montour Falls, Woodworth took to social media to reflect, “Even a hike along a gorge trail and under waterfalls provides opportunities to reflect on how history is acknowledged and presented.” The group also visited Ganondagan State Historic Site, a Native American historic site in Ontario County, located on the site of the largest Seneca village of the 17th century.

Bray, Brown, Fabio and Roc’s research honed in on notable Geneva figures including Arthur Kenney, Mary Georgetta Cleggett Kenney and Henry McDonald, who were involved in business, music and athletics in the region.

After identifying these notable Genevans, the group began the process of writing monologues that will share insights about their lives and experiences in the Finger Lakes at the turn of the century, and in the 1930s and 40s respectively.

To learn from an expert in the field of history-based playwriting, HWS Theatre and the Summer Research Fellowship Program co-sponsored a lecture by Kyle Bass, playwright, Associate Artistic Director of Syracuse Stage, and Assistant Professor of Theater at Colgate University. Bass’ talk, titled “Made Out of the Past: Slavery, Creative Imagination, and the Writing of Possessing Harriet” shared insights from his experience researching and writing his play, Possessing Harriet, and the differences between “fact” and “truth” in history-based playwriting.

Through the writing process, Samari Brown says she kept coming back to lessons from her “Words Matter: Justice through Historical Representation” course, offered through the Fisher Center for the Study of Gender and Justice in spring 2021. One of the central learning objectives of the course, Brown says, was to challenge conventional narratives of history. “Not only did this course leave me with the lingering thought, “What can I do to play a role in the telling of a more accurate story?” but also the mission, how will I rewrite (right) history?”

Bay, Brown and Roc also built upon their foundation in creating theatre from history, after their experience in the writing-room for the production “Supernatural Saunter.” The podcast drama was inspired by the writings of the founder of William Smith College, William Smith, who practiced Spiritualism.

Save the date for the Sept. 24 and 25 performance of “From the Beyond: Staging Geneva’s Unheard Voices,” a fall production by HWS Theatre.

The production will be staged outside, in downtown Geneva, as a walking tour. There are roles available for African American actors (to portray the historic figures) as well as actors of any race and gender to portray the tour guide characters. Auditions and callbacks will be held on Friday, Aug. 27 from 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. in McDonald Theatre of the Gearan Center for the Performing Arts. There will be a special Audition Workshop on Thursday, Aug. 26 at 4:30 p.m. for newcomers to HWS Theatre. Auditions are open to members of the HWS community and the Geneva community.