Performance gives insight into lives of slaves, indentured servants

Posted: June 20, 2014

TO AVOID being sent back to a plantation in Maryland, Charity Castle had to sue for her freedom.

A slave owned by Philadelphia's prominent Chew family, Castle had hurt herself in a mysterious fall and argued she couldn't go back. She lost in court. What later became of her is unknown.

Castle's story is one of many documented in the Chew family papers, the basis of a new dramatic production at Mount Airy's Cliveden historical estate, where she once worked.

Tonight and tomorrow, the New Freedom Theatre will give a glimpse into members of the Chew family and the slaves and indentured servants who worked for them. The performance, "Liberty to Go to See," is a collaboration among Cliveden, the New Freedom Theatre and the Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

The audience walks through the house with a narrator portraying James Smith, a freed African slave who came to work as a servant at Cliveden in the early 1800s. He covers about 100 years of the site's history.

"It brings alive the historical site in a way that a tour kind of can't do," said Gail Leslie, one of the playwrights from the New Freedom Theatre involved with the production.

The Chew family built the Cliveden estate between 1763 and 1767 and occupied it for seven generations. The family was among the largest owners of slaves in Pennsylvania, with nine plantations in Maryland and what would become Delaware.

The idea for the performance came out of 40 community meetings hosted by Cliveden since 2010, Cliveden Executive Director David Young said. Cliveden does an annual re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown, Young said, and some folks suggested putting on a performance based on the Chew family papers - about 230,000 documents including letters written by slaves.

"The story of Cliveden is the story of America," he said. "To come out to the site is to see history differently."

David O'Connor, resident director of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, said 12 to 14 students wrote the first version of the script. That started last summer, he said, and the production later was turned over to the New Freedom Theatre.

O'Connor said the performance is a "safe and inviting way" to confront your own thoughts about the history of slavery, race and class in Philadelphia.

"It's just going to be awesome theater," he said.

The estate is at Germantown Avenue and Cliveden Street in East Mount Airy. Today's show is at 7 p.m.; tomorrow's are at noon and 3 p.m. Admission is $12. Each show is limited to 20 people.

On Twitter: @dylan_segelbaum

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