Juneteenth program at Ridgefield Library ‘giving voice’ to enslaved people who ‘didn’t have a voice’

The Ridgefield Library, Chekhov Theatre Festival and American Slavery Project have collaborated to host a theatrical performance of monologues, called “Unheard Voices,” on Juneteenth. The performance shows the imagined experiences of African descended men, woman and children buried in lower Manhattan.

The Ridgefield Library, Chekhov Theatre Festival and American Slavery Project have collaborated to host a theatrical performance of monologues, called “Unheard Voices,” on Juneteenth. The performance shows the imagined experiences of African descended men, woman and children buried in lower Manhattan.

/ Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD — In honor of Juneteenth, the Ridgefield Library, Chekhov Theatre Festival and American Slavery Project have collaborated to host a theatrical performance of monologues based on the imagined experiences of men, woman and children of African descent buried in lower Manhattan.

The performance “Unheard Voices”, being held Sunday at the library, will be a collection of original monologues set to music and drumming. It was the first original work by the American Slavery Project, a Manhattan-based theater company created in response to revisionism in America’s discourse on slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow.

Nancy Ponturo, board member for the Chekhov Theatre Festival, said bringing this performance to Ridgefield has been a few years in the making and they’re more excited than ever that they can celebrate it on Juneteenth.

“It’s giving voice to these men, women, children, slaves that didn’t have a voice,” Ponturo said of the production. “We just love the American Slavery Project and this work just felt very appropriate where we are in the world right now.”

The event starts at 4 p.m. Sunday and will run one hour, followed by a talk with the performers.

The newly recognized federal holiday of Juneteenth has been long celebrated in African American cultures as the commemoration of the true end of slavery in the United States, as it was the day in 1865 when news reached enslaved people in Texas that they were actually free people.

In creating “Unheard Voices” the American Slavery Project commissioned 17 writers to examine 419 graves of the anonymous enslaved men, women, and children, indentured servants, and free people who lived during the colonial era and are buried in the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan so that the writers could imagine their names and daily lives and bring their voices back to life.

Judy Tate, who will present the performance at the library, is the producing artistic director and co-founder of the American Slavery Project.

“The purpose is to give life and voice to people who might have been, who were never recognized during their time and to put living voices and faces in a time that was very murky for people,” Tate said. “I hope that people will engage with these characters’ humanity and see that these were ordinary people caught in extraordinary economic and social circumstances.”

Tate was present the day the graves in the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan were excavated. She said it was a place were some 10,000 to 30,000 people were forced to bury their dead outside city limits between 1690 and 1790.

Tate said people felt something holy in digging up the graves and brought that forth in “Unheard Voices.”

“It’s a play but it’s also a ritual and an homage to the ancestors,” she said.

As people enter, they’re invited to write on some parchment the names of anyone close to them who has died because for a segment of the performance a singer takes the basket of names to sing to the dead, Tate said.

The content of the monologues is varied and often touching or humorous, Tate said, and to have the event on Juneteenth felt fitting because just as the holiday is celebratory, “Unheard Voices” has the same quality, she said.

Ponturo said through artistic director Hamilton Clancy, they try to bring thought-provoking and socially relevant works to Ridgefield. “Unheard Voices” fits right into that mission, Ponturo said.

“Right now this is very topical, especially with Juneteenth on Sunday and what’s going on with discussions of racism,” Ponturo said. “We try to find not just what’s a hot topic currently but how can we have a conversation this. How can we discuss it and how can we bring it to the community to discuss it?”

Ponturo added that having a live performance centered on African American lives can make a difference in how viewers consider and talk about race.

“With theater it’s an immediate reaction you get,” she said. “There’s no way you can’t feel something. It catapults you to having an immersive experience and that’s something only theater can do.”

People attending the performance could enter knowing nothing about Juneteenth and leave informed, Ponturo said, because the point is to open up the space so people can talk about it.

After the performance, the actors will participate in a talk back with the audience to answer questions and discuss the material.

Ponturo said she hopes this season-opening performance can also reignite interest from the community in the production that the Chekhov Theatre Festival brings to Ridgefield.

The Michael Chekhov Theatre Festival was created to honor the namesake actor, who in 1939 established the Chekhov Ridgefield School in a barn, where he taught classes and honed his legacy acting techniques. Born in Russia, Chekhov lived in Ridgefield for many years before moving to Hollywood where he tutored legendary actors including Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood.

Register to attend the event on the Ridgefield Library website.