Sunday, November 27, 2022

Stage play ‘What the River Knows’ unearths racism, trauma, redemption in backdrop of 1898

Dress rehearsals for “What the River Knows,” with a cast of newcomers and seasoned actors, will make its stage premiere Thursday night. (Courtesy Erica Stillman)

WILMINGTON — A dance, a film, a play: Alicia Inshiradu’s passion project, “What the River Knows,” has taken on a trifecta of artistic output over the last two decades. On Thursday, it will get its stage premiere at Thalian Hall as part of the 124th anniversary of the 1898 coup d’etat.

On Nov. 10, more than a century ago, a group of white supremacists overthrew Wilmington’s Black-leading government, killed at least hundreds of African Americans, and drove out thousands more from a thriving post-Reconstruction city.

“It’s a fact that Blacks were in the majority at the time; they were about 52% of the population,” Inshiradu said. “And they were doing very well. But when the 1900 census came around, the population was down to less than 20%. And it stayed there for all these years. The Black community is at 18% now.”

For decades, Inshiradu studied the massacre, reading books like Philip Gerard’s “Cape Fear Rising” (the local writer and professor passed away Nov. 7, UNCW reported) and Sr. H Leon Prather’s nonfiction work, “We Have Taken a City, the Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898.” She pored over documents and news clippings from the N.C. Room in the library and information about 1898 from the Cape Fear Museum, as well as interviewed descendents connected to the event.

Read in the J.L. Hill 1897 Business Directory listing “colored businesses” in the area, Inshiradu said she learned about a man named Balaam Fuller. He lived on Seventh Street and was the only bill poster with a sign-making shop in Wilmington. 

One of the main characters in “What the River Knows,” a fictionalized tale that moves between generations of a family 120 years apart, is based on the once-thriving business owner. The character goes by the name Balaam Futrelle. 

Futrelle is living a successful life in Wilmington in 1898, with a growing family. His wife, Kitty, is pregnant, and he just secured a plot of land for his family to take another step toward security. Yet, he also outbid his arch-nemesis, a white man named George Galloway, for the plat, which strikes ire. 

Fast forward three months and Futrelle is watching supremacists murder Black men at the height of the coup. 

“I wanted to create a character who could be an informant of a legend that surrounds 1898 that’s still unresolved — and that is that several Black men were thrown into the Cape Fear River, and it’s never been investigated,” Inshiradu said. “It’s never been documented. So I want to create somebody who actually witnesses it.”

Futrelle is caught seeing the events unfold by Galloway, who chases the Black businessman into a slave cemetery and kills him. 

In the meantime, Futrelle’s nine-month pregnant wife hides out in the swamp — much like the accounts of women and children documented from the time — as a white mob moves through the community, from homes to churches to businesses, to intimidate the Black population. Kitty gives birth to a daughter in the marshland who survives before the mom perishes. 

The massacre sets the foundation for the generations of Futrelles to come, including Bailey, who in 1998 is leaving for Paris to become an artist. He is also running from his own traumatic turn of violent events he manages to banish from his mind. 

Upon his return to his hometown 22 years later to bury his grandmother, he reckons with that past, and on his path to healing, unearths his family’s harried roots and generational trauma.

“I really admire how she has woven two timelines together, merging past events with present events to show how a family and even a community can be affected by tragedies that were committed generations ago,” artistic director of Big Dawg Productions Steve Vernon said. 

Vernon helped Inshiradu workshop the play from her screenplay during the first six months of the year. 

Inshiradu began writing “What the River Knows” in the mid-’90s. Upon penning the first notes of her protagonist and secondary characters, she said they all “took over.”

“They started speaking to me,” Inshiradu said. “And it just became organic and alive — they are writing this story.”

Alicia Inshiradu has spent over two decades studying the 1898 massacre and penning a fictionalized tale against its backdrop. (Courtesy photo)

More than 20 years in the making

“What the River Knows” began as Inshiradu’s thesis project while she was attending UNCW, yet grew into a dance performance, “Dance of Redemption,” in the late ‘90s, first staged at downtown’s community arts center. Ever since, Inshiradu, a filmmaker and cofounder of the Black Arts Alliance and Cine Noir: A Festival of Black Film, has rewritten and edited it more than a dozen times in various art forms. 

Using local talent, she even shot scenes to make a proof-of-concept film of “What the River Knows” four years ago.

“I always wanted it to be a film,” Inshiradu said.

At the Cucalorus Film Festival in 2019, the elongated trailer had its premiere, with a live staged reading presented by a handful of actors. The feedback was immediate, Inshiradu said: “Everybody was saying, ‘We want to see the whole story,’ and so my executive producers convinced me to adapt the film for the stage.”

It was originally scheduled to debut in the fall of 2021, but a rise in Covid-19 numbers prevented it from happening. It was the right move to hold off, Inshiradu admitted, mainly because the script still needed work.

“It’s been a challenge,” she said. “A film and live stage play are totally two different animals.”

That’s when she called on Vernon for his 25-plus year insight on staging productions to help make the transition.

“I am moved by the story that she’s created and I think it’s an important story,” Vernon said. “But I’ve been most moved by the passion that she and her cast and others have invested in the show. There’s a very notable and burning need on all of their parts to bring it to life.”

Twenty actors are shaping and molding the Futrelles and Galloways, many taking on multiple roles. Inshiradu had to recast the stage version from the film; local actors, such as Khawon Porter, moved, and tragically Joy James, who played the role of Kitty, passed away. 

“It was very difficult to recast, and not just with Black actors but white actors,” Inshiradu said. “I had to recruit people by watching other plays in town and reach out personally with phone calls and emails because the two-day auditions we held didn’t produce a great turnout.” 

With a cast of experienced and inexperienced talent, she called the latest iteration of performers invaluable assets, building upon the story and importance of camaraderie. Seasoned actors are helping newcomers “get stronger,” Inshiradu explained.

Joseph Hill is making his debut as Balaam and Bailey Futrelle. Kent West is reprising his role as George Galloway from the proof-of-concept film. He performs as both the 1898 character and a family descendent living in 1998.

“We use clips from the film to create Bailey’s flashbacks of memory,” Inshiradu explained.

Voiceovers are included as well to differentiate between old Galloway and his modern-day counterpart.

“Of course, the two roles Kent plays can’t be on stage at the same time,” Inshiradu said.

In fact, the entire performance is a multimedia event. The set design is minimal with a backdrop of trees, while props indicate homes and other settings. However, with the lighting and sound effects — including audible rage from the massacre — visceral emotion comes to life.  

A drumline will perform and Inshiradu has brought in the power of spoken word, including a poem about 1898, written by her friend and poet Delthea Simmons. 

And Porter, originally playing Bailey in the film, still managed to contribute from 400 miles away. He composed an original song for the stage production as part of the grand finale.

“The goal was for the end to be uplifting,” Inshiradu said. “And to make it clear to the audience the impact 1898 had on the community over a century later.”

Though the story deals with heavy content, she said the purpose is to illuminate resilience and revival. It’s as important to leave audiences with a sense of joy in an otherwise dark corner of Black history.

“Black people in general do not want to have to live this every day,” Inshiradu said. “I mean, we live racism everyday, but we want to be able to be ourselves and explore art or theater, have jobs and careers. I’m speaking for myself as a Black person: I don’t want to be bogged down by the past. I’m hoping for a cathartic release — some psychic healing to be done.”

But to get through it is to acknowledge it, and to acknowledge it is to let go of resentment and anger, she added.

Dress rehearsals for “What the River Knows,” with a cast of newcomers and seasoned actors, will make its stage premiere Thursday night. (Courtesy Erica Stillman)

‘I am determined to sell the script to Hollywood’

Though Inshiradu has spent two decades tweaking and producing “What the River Knows” in many incarnations, she said the the timing feels right to reach its end-goal. 

“I am determined to sell the script to Hollywood,” she said. “I consider all of this work on the adaptation for the stage as workshopping for a feature.” 

Since 2020’s George Floyd protests and even the attempted insurrection on the capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Inshiradu said it seems people are becoming more aware and inclined to learn about the underbelly of racial strife in America. Hollywood is shifting, too, toward recognizing the importance of diversity, with the Academy Awards putting more of a spotlight on choosing films that feature people of color, while streamers are honing in on more content for underrepresented factions of the population.

“We’re seeing a difference now,” Inshiradu said. “We see Black people in more prominent and supporting roles.” 

And the parallel can be seen on a local level, in some ways, with municipalities adding diversity, equity and inclusion positions, companies building departments around DEI, and even more theater productions taking creative liberties in casting diverse actors.

“Projects like ‘What the River Knows’ are vital,” Vernon said. “Not only do they bring stories to light, but they also serve as an invitation for other people to explore their creative needs. Alicia has included actors who will be on a stage for the first time, and mixed them with experienced actors. She’s attracted people to the play who otherwise may not have ever attempted to be involved in a theatrical experience. I think that’s a wonderful thing. ‘What the River Knows’ is giving a voice to several stories and several people.”

Still, it doesn’t mean the work is complete. The history of 1898 really didn’t make it onto the public’s radar as forthcomingly until the 21st century.

“Blacks did not want to discuss 1898 out in public even in 1996,” Inshiradu remembered. “It was discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, but really that history was lost. And because of that, I think Blacks still feel estranged from the mainstream community of Wilmington.”

In 2000 a state commission was founded to study the events and establish the historical record of what happened on that horrific day. A 464-page report was released in 2006.

One year later, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution to officially recognize the coup. During the same year, the 1898 Foundation in Wilmington broke ground on the 1898 Memorial Park. It became dedicated at Hanover and 3rd streets in 2008.

Today, a few historical markers in the city also mark the tragedy. One is near The Daily Record offices on South Third Street, in homage to editor Alex Manly, as the massacre started when a white mob burned his office. The marker refers to it as a “race riot,” rather than massacre. 

However, another marker between Fourth and Fifth streets along Market, where the rioting began over 100 years ago, was erected in 2019 and signifies it as a Wilmington coup. 

The city and county began hosting events in commemoration of 1898 last year. One included a “coming home” celebration for Josh Halsey, a man murdered amid the massacre. Historical research group Third Person Project — founded by writer John Jeremiah-Sullivan — located Halsey’s unmarked grave, which prompted a funeral, with his descendents in attendance.

The real-life grave discovery mirrors a scene Inshiradu wrote 20 years ago as part of “What the River Knows.”

“It’s kind of spooky it’s happening now,” she said.

In her script, Bailey goes on a hunt to find his great, great, great grandfather’s final resting place in the slave cemetery where he was murdered. Bailey’s goal is to gather his bones and give him a proper memorial service. 

“It’s a pretty strong script, if I do say so myself,” Inshiradu said, and even though fictional, “the audience is going to leave, knowing what happened on November 10, 1898.”

“What the River Knows” is being staged, Nov. 10 through 12 at 7:30 p.m. and on Nov. 13 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $42.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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