Ever wonder what a town meeting on Martha’s Vineyard might have looked like centuries ago? Instead of new school projects, fluoride debates, or shade tree removals, agendas were centered around slavery and debates of abolition.
Islander Jack Schimmelman had a vision of what this might look like. He spent the final years of his life reading, researching, and producing a theatrical embodiment of a town meeting in 1854. His production is called “1854: A Folk Opera,” and it represents the voices of abolitionists, slave owners, slaves, and townspeople.
“It was his dream to produce this opera,” Chilmark resident Susan Pacheco said.
Schimmelman died in 2015 after years of fighting illness, but left his dream in the hands of close friend Jim Thomas. For the past three years, Thomas and his “1854” advisory board have been working hard to bring Schimmelman’s vision to life. On Friday, June 22, the group hosts a fundraiser at the P.A. Club to raise money for the production, which will debut in September.
“A folk opera has to have three elements,” Thomas said. “It needs to have traditional music, ordinary people — as opposed to nobles and royals — and traditional instruments.”
Pacheco is on the advisory board, and painted a picture of what the theatrical production is all about.
“It will include songs from the period sung by people in the community,” she said. “You’ll hear drumming, a little piano, and songs sung by townspeople, mariners, and slaves.”
“The production is wrapped around three different styles of music,” Thomas said. “One is slave songs, to transpose one piece of dialogue to another. The next is a traditional hymn done to start the meeting. In those days, every official meeting started with a song and prayer. And thirdly, there will be some sea shanties because of the whaling industry. It’s going to be quite different, but very enjoyable and educational.”
Thomas is the director of the U.S. Slave Song Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about U.S. slave songs. The U.S. Slave Song Choir sings authentic songs that were sung by slaves between 1619 and 1865, when the last slaves were freed, according to the U.S. Slave Song website.
“I wanted to educate the public about messages in slave songs, and [Schimmelman] wanted to tell the story of a town meeting that happened in 1854 about ending slavery,” Thomas said.
“Our goals were very compatible, and that’s why I took on the project.”
“There were still people enslaved on Martha’s Vineyard in 1854,” Pacheco said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Randall Burton was a slave who hid himself on a ship that came north. He escaped the ship in Holmes Hole Harbor, and ran across the Island to Gay Head, where the Wampanoag Tribe aided his escape. Nancy Michaels was also enslaved. She was an interesting personality, considered by many to be a witch. Whaling captains would go to her for special charms on whaling voyages, and farmers would go to her seeking charms for good crops.
“Different historical personalities will appear and lend a voice to different sides of the argument,” Pacheco said. “One of the central figures in the opera is a griot.”
A griot is a high-status member of an African village who makes announcements about births, deaths, marriages, and special events. Griots are a spiritual embodiment of the voices of ancestors, according to Pacheco.
The “1854” advisory board is in the stages of fundraising and auditioning people for different roles in the opera. According to Thomas, in order for the production to be possible, “1854” needs a minimum of $50,000. They currently have $20,000. This September, there will be a concert version performed at Union Chapel. It will be a professional read-through, and the culminating production will be the following September, with full costumes and music.
“A lot of it is educational and speaks to racial justice,” Pacheco said. “You’ll notice topics from 1854 resonate with topics in 2018. They resonate in the same way and are very connected to what’s happening in the U.S. today. Racial justice reflects directly back to this period of time.”
“I really want people to get excited about this,” Thomas said. “It’s interesting, educational, and it’s about the Vineyard. It really happened.”
The group’s next fundraiser is on Friday, June 22 — a dance party with Sabrina and the Jelly Roll Horns at the P.A. Club, from 8 to 11 pm. Tickets are $20 at the door, and the event includes a silent auction, free snacks, and singing. “1854: A Folk Opera” will be accepting donations, and all are welcome.