History lessons

Abigail McGrath’s ‘Hidden Heroes’ will bring unsung and underrepresented heroes to life in an animated series.

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Abigail McGrath, creator of the Hidden Heroes series, is looking forward to bringing it to animation. — Christine Sargologos

Abigail McGrath is a ball of fire, so it’s no surprise she’s embarking on a new project. Her “Hidden Heroes,” a series of plays composed with her late husband for New York City street theater, is being made into an animated series by Frederator Studios. The series will highlight Black and other underrepresented people — most you won’t find in history books. When I heard about it, I decided it was time to meet the Oak Bluffs summer resident and niece of Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West. We chatted early this week about the project.

Turns out “Hidden Heroes” was created back in the 1970s, after the first Black History Month was established. Back then, Abigail and her husband Tony put together street theater performances for children outside Lincoln Center in New York City, usually taking a spin off classic tales like “Cinderella” (in their version, Cinderella discovers that marrying a prince won’t necessarily solve all her problems) or “Little Red Riding Hood” (where the Wolf is vegetarian, in their take on it).

“We started doing historical figures,” Abigail explained. “We did Crispus Attucks, and we did a lot of research and said, ‘Oh my goodness, why is this man not in the history books?’” Attucks, who escaped slavery, is known as the first American colonist killed in the Revolutionary War. “Anyway, that hooked us, and we said, Let’s do more,” she explained. “There are significant people in history that are not getting a light shined upon them.

“When we first started doing the history shows,” she continued, “it never occurred to us that our immediate list was all male and that we should seek out women, because they were truly hidden. We accepted that the very term ‘Hero’ meant that it was male. This was 40, 45 years ago. We’ve come a long way . . .  and we have a long way to go.”

They discovered other historical figures such as Benjamin Banneker, whose first claim to fame was building a clock entirely out of wood, the first built in America. It’s reported it kept precise time for decades. He also made astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a solar eclipse, and was part of the survey team that laid out Washington, D.C.

Abigail asked if I knew that Frederick Douglass had been nominated for vice president in the 1870s. I didn’t. One of her other endeavors, Renaissance House, has facilitated the Vineyard’s annual reading of Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” for years. “He gave all those wonderful speeches at the risk of being killed; he was a runaway slave,” she told me.

While history books often include stories about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, they don’t include much information about many others, Abigail said.
“What the books didn’t have were the very smart Black people … genius-type people,” Abigail said.

“Hidden Heroes” will also include women who achieved great things, such as Deborah Sampson Gannett, a Massachusetts woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve during the Revolutionary War. Josephine Baker, whom we may mostly remember as an entertainer, actually served with the French military intelligence agency, collecting information from cafe society gatherings. She was awarded prestigious prizes in France, but not in her native U.S.

Abigail said she first met Michael Hirsh, CEO of Frederator Studios, in New York at the “Hidden Heroes” performances, but back then there was no real appetite for an animated series about the plays. Hirsh and McGrath are longtime friends and collaborators, and now they agree the timing is right. 

“Frederator focuses on creator-driven projects, and Abigail McGrath has been committed to telling the stories of Hidden Heroes for many decades, starting with her founding of New York City’s Off Center Theatre,” Hirsh wrote in an email. “The time has come to share these stories with the global population that can now be reached by streaming television.”

Writing partners Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs will take on scriptwriting, and Abigail will be the executive producer, making sure that the content is accurate and entertaining. 

“A few years ago, Shawnelle and I were lucky enough to be fellows of USC’s competitive Guy Hanks and Marvin Miller Screenwriting Fellowship. There we met Abigail’s son, Benson, who immediately became like extended family to us,” Shawnee explained in an email. “Through Benson, we were introduced to Abigail’s work, and read one of her autobiographical plays. Of course, we instantly discovered that she was one fascinating woman with many stories to tell!”

Her sister wrote saying that they are developing the concept of “Hidden Heroes” for animation, using a combination of Abigail’s source material, their own imaginations, “along with researching the many amazing — and varied — forgotten heroes of history. For children and families to have entertainment built around these stories is not only needed but incredibly important and empowering.”

Abigail told me it hadn’t occurred to her that she wouldn’t have to write her own scripts. “What a luxury!” she exclaimed while we were talking.

“Hidden Heroes” is about less-told history, part of which is actually quite tragic. But the series is not meant to be a heavy-handed production that holds a mirror up to U.S. history. Abigail aims for it to be entertaining while getting its point across.

“When you do tragedy, making it funny is hard,” Abigail explained. “Getting shot is hard. Being assassinated … there’s not a lot of laughs in that. History is not necessarily funny, so you have to punch it up … and then people will remember it.

“When doing drama about history, especially for television, it is important not to have any part of your audience feel guilty. You want them to stay turned and learn and open their eyes.”

Judging by the preliminary process, “Hidden Heroes” will pull the cover off some of history’s most unknown figures. 

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Abigail McGrath, left, and Connie Berry as they pick up a free gem off Pennacook Ave. in Oak Bluffs. — Lucien Tancil

Meeting Abigail McGrath

Directionally challenged, I had Googled how to get to Renaissance House in Oak Bluffs. Abigail opens it up to writers who need a place to focus on their craft. On my way there last Saturday, I passed a wicker sofa with green cushions that had a cardboard sign on it that read “Free.” I have a passion for picking up things on the side of the road, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I could paint that and get some of those indoor-outdoor cushions …”

I parked my car and went to the door of Renaissance House and knocked. No one answered. I looked up Abigail’s cell number and gave her a ring. “I think I’m in the wrong place,” I said.

She gave me directions to the cottage she has on Myrtle Avenue, next door to Dorothy West’s old place. “No worries,” she said, “you’ll get here when you get here.” I liked her attitude already.

Abigail greeted me at the door, and she had seven-layer cookies and fresh watermelon waiting. It was a beautiful day, so we decided we’d talk outdoors on the back porch. When I went to unload my laptop, I noticed she had a wicker set and I said, “Oh, I love wicker. I just passed a free sofa on the side of the road on my way here.”

“Let’s go get it,” Abigail said.

“What?”

“Let’s go get it right now,” she said, already standing at her front door.

She hopped into her SUV and I hopped into my Rav4 and we headed back to Pennacook Avenue. The prize was still sitting there ready for the taking, only there was a man standing next to it with some kind of bag he’d placed on the sofa.

“Oh, no,” Abigail says to him as we get out of our cars, “that’s ours.”

The man sort of laughed and said not to worry, he was just using it for a second while he put something in his camera bag. “This is good,” Abigail said to me, “he can help us put it in the car.”

So we proceeded to clean out the back of both of our vehicles, no easy feat as we both had cars filled with junk. We’re cut from the same cloth, I thought.

“You two must be best friends,” the man said, and introduced himself as Lucien Tancil, a photographer.

“No, we just met,” I told him.

Then we got down to business. My new wicker sofa wouldn’t fit into either of our cars. We had no rope, no bungee cords, nothing that could attach the sofa to the roof of my car. Abigail managed to come up with an extension cord, a piece of fabric, and several trash bags she twisted into long lengths so that they could be tied to my roof rack.

We agreed I would head home with the sofa and then go back to her place, hoping we still had enough time for the interview before her next appointment. I got behind the wheel and slowly crept away. Abigail headed back to her car with Lucien; she had decided she would give him a little tour around Oak Bluffs while I was taking the sofa to my place. They became fast friends too.

And that’s how I met Abigail McGrath.

 

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