MEXICO — Siena College students and performers from the Black Theater Troupe of Upstate New York are aiming to tell a different story surrounding the movement to abolish slavery in America that took place in the later half of the 19th century.
“Yours for the Oppressed,” which will make its Oswego County debut today at the Mexico Point State Park, places the focus on black abolitionists, a perspective producers of the play called “often neglected.”
The production puts performers in the shoes of prominent black abolitionist Stephen Myers and his family, along with members of the Albany Vigilance Committee — an association founded by residents of New York’s capital who were sympathetic of slaves and their struggles and sought to protect their rights.
Producer Krysta Dennis, a professor at Siena College currently doing research on the applications of virtual and augmented reality technologies in the world of theater, said the play aims to dispel myths about the abolition movement.
“We noticed a frequent problematic framing of the abolition movement,” Dennis said. “White abolitionists are depicted as the movers and shakers in the public eye, while black abolitionists are more commonly portrayed as the illiterate guides escorting escaped slaves north under cover of darkness.”
Further, Dennis said while the group doesn’t want to discredit the current portrayals of the movement, the crew wanted to tell a different tale from a different perspective.
“We wanted to tell the story of the risks taken by middle class African Americans with social standing to fight for the rights of the enslaved,” Dennis said.
The play was written by Siena College students and is based on research unearthed by scholars Paul and Mary Liz Stewart from Russell Sage College in the state’s capital region, who co-founded the Underground Railroad History Project — a research plan that aims to further study the underground passages used by slaves in the south to reach free states in the 19th century.
“We wanted to portray the risks taken by middle class African Americans with social standing to fight for the rights of the enslaved,” Dennis said. “The Vigilance Committee was made up of black professionals including a pharmacist, a tailor, a number of preachers- they were educated, literate people. We felt that the story of these unsung heroes needed to be told.”
Dennis also reflected on the parallel the play draws in regard to modern day.
“In a time when we often worry what the 'right' way to combat injustice might be, it is interesting to know that those who fought against racial injustice before us dealt with similar struggles,” she said. “The question that Harriet (Myers) and Stephen's son Abe (Myers) struggle with is still relevant today — ‘is it better to try and enact change through the existing channels of the law, or to try and overthrow existing structures?’”
A story told by performers of color and a collaboration from scholars and artists are the “most profound” part of the production, according to Dennis.
“It is a testament to the importance of this story that so many groups are able to come together to make sure it is told,” she concluded.
“Yours for the Oppressed” will be performed at Mexico Point State Park on Saturday at 2 p.m. and admission will be free of charge.