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Larry Litt

Trumpet of Freedom: The Saga of John Brown

Written by Norman Thomas Marshall and George Wolf Reily
At St. Marks-in-the-Bowery
Extended run: Information at www.wbworks.com

Reviewed by Larry Litt on October 31, 2004

In these final days of the 2004 election campaign many people have suddenly woken up to discover they must act to prevent their issues from being defeated by others at the polls.

Not since the Vietnam War era has this country’s leadership inspired activists to take to the streets and make their desires known for the country’s direction. Whether liberal or conservative, these activists are willing to sacrifice their time and occasionally their freedom in defense of their principles, values ethics and morals.

John Brown, the legendary 19th century abolitionist, went a giant step further. He was determined to bring attention to, and change forever, the inhumanity of slave owners and the laws that protected their insidious property rights for legally owning human beings. He was willing to give up his own life, the lives of his sons and a small company of untrained, dedicated, volunteer, rag tag army of followers who believed in him and The Cause.

On Halloween Eve 2004 I saw Norman Thomas Marshall mesmerize an audience with his portrayal of John Brown. Despite distractions from street noise, we followed his every word, gesture and movement as if we were parishioners attend the sermon of our spiritual leader, or soldiers getting ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. A unique experience, I'd say, for most of the audience at the renowned pacifist central church, St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery.

From the first moment when we hear him singing a spiritual from behind us, to the last when he is hung in Harper's Ferry, Marshall is the one and only John Brown. We cried with him while he reveals his deep personal and spiritual pain at seeing slaves whipped and starved. His anger scared us as he transformed himself into the murderous John Brown, proud that he had destroyed the lives of seven Kickapoo Raiders who wanted slave rights in Kansas. In the name of Freedom.

For most of the performance Marshall was the condemned John Brown, happy to give his life for what he believed. But most important, Marshall showed us John Brown, a very complex and thoughtful man--father, husband, friend, leader, and challenger to the odious world of entrenched American slavery.

While most other abolitionists were preachers or editorialists, Brown and his cohort in crime Harriet Tubman were activists, helping runaway slaves, and recruiting an army to fight for human rights. That they succeeded at all is a tribute to their commitment. But is violence the only way?

Are we ready to give our lives for the rights we claim to believe in and expect from our government? It’s as important an issue now as it was then. I can’t speak for anyone else in the audience, but I felt that until an individual can answer that question honestly, they probably don’t believe in anything but the shallow and controlling rhetoric of a divided, yet civil society avoiding conflict over its major problems.

With George Wolf Reily, Marshall’s co-playwright, this one man bio-performance is a show every student of acting, politics, human and civil rights must see. You can’t imagine the intensity Marshall creates through Brown’s beliefs until you experience it. [Litt]

If you have any comments or want to notify me about performances or shows, you can e-mail me at humornet@aol.com.

Copyright © 2004 Larry Litt


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