Nearly 130 years after his death, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier has once again become a passionate voice for social justice through a new play, “The Abolitionist’s Refrain.”
Written during the height of the pandemic, as Americans reeled in horror at the killing of a Black man by a Minneapolis police officer, the play highlights Whittier’s role as an abolitionist and advocate for human rights.
“The death of George Floyd has caused us as a nation to look again at racism and social justice,” said Arthur Veasey of West Newbury, president of The Whittier Birthplace, the Haverhill farm where Whittier was born in 1807. “What better place locally to examine social justice than the birthplace of a Quaker poet, that fought for the end of slavery.”
“The past year has brought many challenges to us all,” said Myriam Cyr, artistic director of Punctuate4 Productions, which is producing the new play. “Our goal is to create a place where theater, conversations, and ideas come together to tell stories that matter.”
“The Abolitionist’s Refrain” takes place as the Civil War ends and Lincoln has been assassinated. Whittier, who worked tirelessly for emancipation for decades, must now confront his own future and the future of a nation deeply divided.
“As a historical figure, Whittier was always of particular interest to me, not only because, like him, I grew up in Haverhill, but because I’m descended from the Greenleafs,” said Cormier. “Like most people, I enjoyed his pastoral poetry long before I became aware of his involvement in the abolitionist movement. Writing this play has given me the opportunity to learn more about the critical role he played on the local and national stages, and how the issues he grappled with remain relevant today.”
Beginning with his 1833 antislavery pamphlet “Justice and Expediency,” the mostly self-taught Whittier became a far-reaching voice for freedom and equality.
“Active in the abolitionist movement as early as the 1830s, his was a passionate voice on emancipation and he understood racism did not end with the Civil War or the 13th Amendment [which abolished slavery],” said Sue Herman of Newburyport, docent at The Whittier Home and Museum in Amesbury where the poet lived during most of his adult life.
“He understood the power of words,” said Cormier. “Whittier wrote, ‘If we write at all, why not use our talents to the best advantage.’ This is so telling of his attitude as a Quaker and an American. He’s almost saying that we all have an obligation to apply our skills — whatever they be — to the common good.”
Despite frail health, for three decades leading up to the war, Whittier took on the editorship of antislavery papers including the Pennsylvania Freeman, knowing that, even in the North, the antislavery movement was unpopular with a significant part of the population.
“Whittier barely escaped with his life when Pennsylvania Hall, which housed the Pennsylvania Freeman, was burned down by a mob opposed to the antislavery movement in 1838,” said Cormier. “This shows how volatile the debate on slavery was and just how committed he was to the cause, considering his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for it.”
“A Quaker, Whittier was a pacifist,” said Herman. “Yet he supported the Civil War as he saw it as necessary to end slavery.”
“Whittier understood that the Civil War was not the end of the story, just as racism didn’t end with Martin Luther King,” said Veasey. “His words on social justice are as important today as they were in his lifetime.”
Whittier is largely remembered for his poetry, which idolized nature and a rural life. His 1866 work, “Snow-Bound,” was hugely successful for the time, selling 20,000 copies.
“When I was offered the role of Whittier, I knew he was a poet, but not the breadth of his life and contributions,” said actor Phil Thompson of Ipswich, who will portray Whittier in the reading of scenes from the new play. “I like the fact that he was a strong voice on important issues, but he was also physically frail — battling health issues his entire life.”
“He fought the temptation to be vain, despite his success,” added Thompson. “In reading about Whittier, I find that he had no ulterior motives, his religion and social justice were most important to him.”
The play will feature Boxford’s Dan Bruns as abolitionist, publisher, and Newburyport native William Lloyd Garrison. Corey Roberts of Hopedale will be in the role of returning Union soldier Lester Williams, and Marissa Mason of Beverly will portray Whittier’s niece, Elizabeth.
“We are thrilled to introduce this new play outdoors at The Whittier Home and Museum and Whittier Birthplace. These are two local treasures that preserve Whittier’s legacy and enrich the region through educational and cultural activities that foster a love of poetry,” said Cyr.
Thanks to support from the Massachusetts and local cultural councils, the programs are free, but to maintain social distancing, online reservations are required.
Performance details and a link to the free tickets are available at punctuate4.org/productions/the-abolitionists-refrain.
Linda Greenstein can be reached at email@example.com.