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‘Faces of Phillis’ imagines Phillis Wheatley’s life for the 250th anniversary of her poetry collection

Work by playwright Ade Solanke and poet Porsha Olayiwola will be performed at the fifth annual Pierce Performance on Dec. 4.

A statue of Phillis Wheatley on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In honor of the 250th anniversary of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry collection, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the fifth annual Pierce Performance at the Boston Public Library will center on the first published Black American poet’s life, poetry, and legacy. The free event hosted by the Associates of the Boston Public Library on Dec. 4 in the library’s Rabb Hall will feature writers and artists Ade Solanke, Porsha Olayiwola, Meredith Bergmann and others to highlight Wheatley’s work preserved in the library’s Rare Books Department.

“[Phillis Wheatley] is a testament to the power of human imagination, the resilience and the fortitude that people can draw on in whatever circumstances they find themselves in,” said Solanke, the award-winning playwright and screenwriter who created the night’s first performance, “Faces of Phillis,” a staged reading of two scenes that dramatize moments in Wheatley’s life.


(left to right) Serenity S'rae playing Obour Tanner and Adreyanua Jean-Louis playing Phillis Wheatley Peters in "Phillis in Boston" at the Old South Meeting House.Maggie Hall, Courtesy of Revolutionary Spaces

The first scene is based on Wheatley’s poem, “To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works,” and imagines an encounter between Wheatley and Scipio Moorhead, a young enslaved painter, on the eve of her departure to London. The second scene imagines Wheatley almost a decade after the publication of her poetry collection, and focuses on the poet as a wife and a mother mourning the loss of her two children.

“In spite of all the trauma of being kidnapped and being brought to America through the horrendous Middle Passage, I just still find it astonishing that she was able to reorganize, gather, commit, and develop herself to the point where she could write what was then the most revered art form in the world: poetry,” Solanke said.

Lisa Rafferty, a playwright, director, producer, and professor at Bridgewater State University, will moderate a discussion with Solanke after the scenes are performed. Meredith Bergmann, the sculptor of the Boston Women’s Memorial, and Kyera Singleton, the Royall House Museum’s executive director will also join the panel.


“We’ll be talking about the intersection of art and theater and history, particularly women’s history,” said Rafferty. “I think it’s going to be a very dynamic, very vibrant evening.”

To conclude the program, Porsha Olayiwola , the City of Boston’s poet laureate, will perform one of Wheatley’s poems as well as read some of her own Wheatley-inspired work.

“That’s what makes Phillis Wheatley Peters so relevant even 250 years later,” said Vidisha Agarwalla, communications and operations specialist at the Associates of the Boston Public Library. “That there are still Black women who are having their intelligence questioned, their credibility or credentials questioned by the quote unquote professionals around them.”

“There were many people who actually did believe at that time that Africans couldn’t be taught to read and write. So I always say, Phillis emancipated a lot of Europeans from their mistakes,” Solanke said. “There’s so much human potential for peace … I really do believe we can create a better world. And I think her story is inspiring because it gives us a sense of the potential human beings have to overcome the worst that life can throw at us.”

FACES OF PHILLIS, A Staged Reading and Panel Discussion

At Boston Public Library, Rabb Hall, 700 Boylston St., Dec. 4, 6 p.m. Free.

Elena Giardina can be reached at elena.giardina@globe.com.