When Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company presents two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s “One More River to Cross: A Verbatim Fugue” at Philadelphia’s Latvian Society starting May 26, there will be history in the making. That’s not only because Pulley & Buttonhole, along with director James Jackson, will host the world premiere of Nottage’s story of historical connections between contemporary theater motifs and ancient primary cultures in Africa, but rather because the playwright used the very words of enslaved men and women, in plight and flight, throughout America’s Southern states.
“I knew what the narrative was before I set pen to paper,” says Nottage from her home in New York City. “This is the story of black enslavement, from capture to steerage and passage, through slavery to emancipation. I knew so much of the story, but wanted to make sure all the most important beats were included.”
The narrative of “One More River to Cross” unfolded as Nottage expected, but still there were many surprises, the likes of which “took her breath away.” That comes from the harsh realness and revelatory delight of the interviews that Nottage used as the basis for this curious narrative with elements of choral song to lift the spirit and add musical punctuation to the lives of the once-enslaved.
“All of the interviews resonated with me; some were beautiful stories of slaves running into the sun and crossing the rivers, and told in a beautiful manner. There are also the tales of horror and torture, the extent of how far people can be dehumanized, detailed in a fashion that took my breath away,” she says.
Whether the stories dealt with brutality or beauty, dehumanization or drive, terror or temerity of an enslaved people, these were real people recounting that which truly happened. To Nottage whose poetic theater works such as “Sweat” won her a Pulitzer, this brand of non-fiction and direct address was just as poetic as the word she manufactured for the page.
“There was an urgency and an honesty to these interviews, to say nothing of the manner in which these men and women spoke, a vernacular that is long gone by the point.”
Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project — part of the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) meant to support artists during the Great Depression — gathered 2,300-plus interviews with emancipated slaves in order to document their ordeal. Nottage collected, curated and condensed these interviews, and their rich, now lost vernacular, into a dramatic expose on black slavery in the U.S.
“All of my work deals with the African diaspora, told by any means necessary,” saysNottage, who just finished wrapping up the contemporary television version of Spike Lee’s debut film “She’s Gotta Have It” for Netflix.
“I have always had a fascination with slave narrative. I longed for a way to get that into a cohesive narrative — a story of enslaved people in their own words and cadences — without any self-consciousness.”
Nottage, who had a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group grant for a year-long residency at Freedom Repertory Theater in Philadelphia, wrote and had readings for “One More River to Cross” several years before she penned and produced 2015’s “Sweat” and simply “put it in a drawer” — leaving the slave narrative with her theatrical agents until a company with guts, drive, imagination and a sense of justice and history came along.
“I’m glad Pulley & Buttonhole is doing this,” says Nottage. “It deserves to be free.”
If you go:
“One More River to Cross”
May 26 through June 11
The Latvian Society of Philadelphia
531 N. 7th St., $20-$35