Staged reading presents a cold interpretation of John Brown
“Marching Song,” a play written by a young Orson Welles and Roger Hill in 1932, was performed by a small cast of actors at the Florham Campus on Thursday, March 31, and showed another depiction of the historical figure John Brown.
The roles of characters in the reading were played by FDU students Gabbi Maitland, Erika Marohn, Megan McCormick, Ore Obiwumi, Genesis Sanchez and Courtney Pote, who was also the director of the show.
Hosted by Becton College, the College Writing Program and Kenneth Sammond, senior lecturer in English, the staged reading was performed in the Twombly Lounge with all six actors in chairs with assorted accessories they wore to portray the different characters, since many of them had to act as two or more characters during different scenes.
The main story of the play showed how the people in John Brown’s group that raided Harpers Ferry viewed their leader and the turmoil he put them through just because his visions from God told him to act.
Some characters often pointed out the lack of logic in Brown’s decision to move their attack up two weeks early, when they were less armed, had fewer soldiers and were less prepared.
One character played by Maitland outwardly said what many of the men were thinking, that “it’s hard to feel chosen or ordained for something,” as it seemed like Brown was doing. Others viewed his actions as justified because of his faith in God and their trust that his visions that told them they would be victorious in their revolt were true.
As depicted through the lines said by the actors, the outcome of the raid is gruesome. Even though John Brown was sure they would succeed and asked his men to “believe in him as a servant of God,” many of those who joined him were killed. The deaths of some of the men involved were described by a few of the actors, like the death of Dangerfield Newby, who was the oldest man in the group. Newby was apparently the first to die, but his body was taken and used to show the mercilessness of the raiders’ enemies, who then shoved stakes through his bullet wounds. Other men were strung up and used as practice targets and even chopped up into pieces fed to pigs.
Though these descriptions were truly gruesome, what was almost as scary to hear was the cold response Brown had to the deaths of these men. When his men would describe how their friends and even family members were being defiled, he either did not show emotion or simply relayed that it was God’s will, as depicted in the performance.
Even when his son was close to death and asked his father to put him down, Brown said, “If you’ve got to die, die like a man.” Eventually Brown was charged with murder and treason.
In his final speech, Brown, who was played by Obiwumi, stated that though the court might find him guilty of the charges, he always believed in what he was fighting for: to end slavery.
When the performance was over the crowded room of students and faculty who had come to see the show applauded loudly.
Afterward Sammond prompted a question-and-answer session, during which many of the questions were about what the actresses thought of Brown and whether they thought he was guilty.
While Pote confidently stated that Brown was definitely “guilty of murder,” Obiwumi elaborated that Brown was “guilty of something but not of what he was charged for.”
Obiwumi went on to say more about Brown’s actions and how the depictions of him have ranged, mainly compared to James McBride’s depiction of him in “The Good Lord Bird.” She analyzed that while McBride characterized Brown as a lunatic, Welles showed him to be more cold-hearted.
Sanchez agreed with Obiwumi’s assessment and added that the portrayal of Brown they read made him seem “a little more humanized” and more than just the crazy abolitionist charged with treason.