hought I knew quite a bit about American history before I read Keith Josef Adkins’ new play, Safe House, about to have its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But his central characters, members of a “free family of color” in 1843 Kentucky, were in a situation that I did not know of. Adkins’ play, inspired by some of his own family’s history, tells a story set within the world of slavery two decades before the Civil War. It’s the story of two brothers who have a kind of freedom but very different perspectives on how to exercise it.
Adkins learned about free people of color when he did some genealogical research about his paternal grandmother’s family. He found a family of free blacks, who were shoemakers in the 1860s, living in Kentucky.
“I wondered, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” he says. “I kept digging and digging. I knew about free people, but I didn’t pay attention to it. When I thought about black people at that time in history, I thought about slaves.”
He asked his grandmother about her grandmother. She causally told him, “No, we were never slaves.” He thought she was confused, but his mother affirmed that the story of ancestors who were free people — not released from slavery by an owner, but by birth — had long been repeated in the family’s history.
Then he learned about free colored or black people, the descendants of the mixing of white indentured women and free, indentured or enslaved men of African descent. Their offspring, due to matrilineal law, were considered free due to the free status of the white mothers. Their children, by this coincidence of birth, were free and often married other free people, resulting in many generations of free people of color.
But it was freedom with many restrictions. Because of the color of their skin, such individuals were considered second-class citizens, discouraged or prohibited from owning or renting land, voting or holding office. In Kentucky, the home of Adkins’ relatives and the setting he chose for the story of Safe House, free blacks had limited mobility and no right to privacy. They could be sold into slavery for defaulting on their taxes or failing to pay fines. And they lived in a precarious world where kidnaping was always a possibility; they had to carry papers with them at all times to verify their freedom.
Adkins — who grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Woodlawn, majored in writing and broadcasting at Wright State University, performed his poetry as a spoken word artist in California’s Bay Area, studied at the University of Iowa and now works as a playwright in New York City — thought this could be an interesting framework for a new play. Safe House received a reading in February 2014 at the Playhouse that led artistic director Blake Robison to decide to include it in the 2014-15 season as a full-fledged production, opening this week. (It’s the srepresenting a remarkable longtime commitment to nurturing new works for the stage.)
Adkins’ script is not merely a window to the past, it revolves around the very human story of sibling rivalry and tensions. Shoemaker Addison Pedigrew is the older of two brothers, ambitious and focused on playing by the rules to get ahead. His headstrong younger brother Frank is resentful of the many restrictions imposed on his family and other free people of color; his willfulness has placed his family in jeopardy ever since he and their Aunt Dorcas tried to help a slave escape. Another such instance could have dire consequences, but the impetuous Frank is not one to pay heed to his conservative brother’s wishes.
“I’ve always been fascinated by favoritism and rivalry within families,” Adkins says. “My maternal grandfather and his brother were always at odds. They were both considered good-looking and extremely intelligent, but they feuded constantly over money, life choices and only the stars know what else.”
Taking that volatile chemistry and moving it 180 years into America’s past added more tension to the story Adkins wanted to tell.
“I’ve been fascinated by racial and social loyalty among African-Americans,” he says. “I grew up in a family that encouraged individuality within a black community that thrived on communal survival and identity. If one’s personal survival was threatened by a group’s demand or someone else’s handicap, then one was encouraged to break free from those demands. I figured if my family was complicated now, they had to be complicated in the 19th century.”
He was eager to explore a world that not many people today are aware of. He also connected the Pedigrews’ story to that of people who were helping slaves escape to Liberia in West Africa, a nation founded in 1820 by freed African-Americans. (Liberia is in the news today due to the tragic outbreak of a deadly Ebola virus epidemic.)
“Most of the people who went to Liberia were 19th-century Americans who only knew Americanisms,” Adkins says. “So of course, they built plantation houses in the middle of the tropics and acted out what they knew, often treating the indigenous people of Liberia as servants and slaves. They found a place they thought of as Paradise, but all they knew was how to be Americans.”
Aunt Dorcas, an idealist herself, receives letters from a relative in Liberia that add further fuel to the complex fire behind Safe House.
Playhouse associate artist Timothy Douglas has staged Safe House. His productions of The Trip to Bountiful, Clybourne Park and The North Pool have been among the most engaging of the past two Playhouse seasons. Before coming to Cincinnati, Douglas staged the world premiere of August Wilson’s Radio Golf in 2005 at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Having brought Adkins’ script to the attention of Blake Robison, he remains enthusiastic about the work.
“This well-made play has everything my director sensibilities could ever desire,” he says, “and I’m beyond inspired and gratified by the demands it is making of me.” ©
SAFE HOUSE, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, opens on Thursday and continues through Nov. 15. More info: cincyplay.com.