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“Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, many southern African Americans remained in debt and servitude until the 1970s,” said Dr. Linda Bannister, producer and co-playwright of Turpentine Jake after the show’s final performance at Loyola Marymount University on August 24.
The two-act period drama, is set in 1937 Florida focuses on the lives of turpentine camp workers, who worked longleaf pine trees, harvested pine gum fourteen hours a day and were paid less than they received the week before. The play carefully illustrates this method of debt peonage both directly and indirectly throughout the production.
The production centers on the main character “Jake”, hardworking mentor and father-figure to many in the camp, escaping after thirty years of bondage when an accidental murder fuels racial tensions between the camp workers and camp owners.
The cast of 15 leads the audience through themes of freedom, friendship, family, and faith. The stabbing, a result of a card game, leaves Jake, brilliantly played by James Hurd, Jr., the grandson of one of the workers for which the play is based, on the run after he is wrongly perceived as the killer. Jake meets up with the Woods Witch, dynamically portrayed by Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly of A Time to Kill fame, a mystic figure who lives in the forest and leads Jake to the ultimate escape route. Rounding out the cast are talented performers Catero Alian Colbert, Elijaye, Jerome Anthony Hawkins (LMU grad), Shamika Franklin, Joshua Nazaroff, Julius Noflin, Ebony Perry, Quent Schierenberg, Derek Shaun, Anthony G. Smith, and Jim Holmes.
Dark brown wood pieces, moss covered shacks and food stores, and sawdust of the set design add to the mystery and drama of the time period. The worn-out denim jumpers, earth tone costume pieces, and breath-taking original folksongs transport the audience from their Del Rey Theatre seats into the dirt road, sweltering heat of the South. The production team, David Potter, Michael Fullman, Megan Long, and Lauren Bernard, serve as perfect compliments to the actor’s performances.
Sadly, the production only reached capacity audience on their final show. “We conducted 15 different interviews to compile this piece, but its mostly based on my grandfather’s business. He told me these stories throughout my childhood and I decided to create [the play] because it’s relevant to today. It’s the same methods of controlling the masses, but now they use credit cards, and immigration laws,” said Hurd, Jr. Audience member JaTaileasha Jones also commented, “All throughout the play, I couldn’t help thinking that [slavery] was not that long ago. Its sad because younger generations may never know this story, this important piece of our heritage”.
Although the production closed at Loyola Marymount University, this story needs to be engrained into the minds of all generations. “This story is relevant to today. A lot of people don’t know about it, I didn’t know about it until I signed on as an actor because it happened in the 1930s and there’s little record of it on a large scale,” said senior Theatre Arts major and cast member Tory Smith. “That’s what I love about the theatre, it educates you, and this is an education that we all need.”
For more information, visit www.kohlplayers.com.