The Firehouse Center for the Arts will mark Newburyport’s 250th anniversary by celebrating one of its most famous — and controversial — residents.
“The Liberator,” a play written by Newburyport resident Jay Harris, traces the life of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison from his apprenticeship with Ephraim Allen at the Newburyport Herald through his years as the editor of anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. It ends with his last visit to the Herald offices, which was shortly before his death in 1879.
“I had heard that Garrison was a very unpopular fellow here in Newburyport,” said Harris, who wrote the play in 2012 and debuted it at The Actors Studio that fall.
Curious why someone opposed to slavery would be so unpopular, Harris started researching Garrison’s life, combing through old newspapers and conducting research at the Boston Public Library.
“Basically, he was a poor kid from the wrong side of town,” Harris said of Garrison, who was born in 1805 and grew up on School Street.
“Almost everything I found out was surprising,” Harris said. “He was a very, very broad-minded man. Even today, he would be considered progressive.”
Harris discovered that Garrison was not only against slavery, he also believed in equal rights for blacks and for women.
“He was way ahead of Lincoln,” Harris said. “He was a radical in his day and would be a radical today.”
Director Maureen Daley and all but one of the actors from the original reading at The Actors Studio have returned for next Thursday’s performance, which is a staged reading featuring historically appropriate costumes provided by Elizabeth Hallett of Newburyport. Hallett and her husband, William, are re-enactors who offer Civil War walking tours in town, and she also runs a reproduction clothing business, Threadneedle Alley.
“The costumes are just a gift,” said Daley, who marked her directorial debut with that first reading of “The Liberator.”
Kimberly Holliday, who plays the narrator in “The Liberator,” was particularly excited earlier this week to try on her elaborate outfit, complete with a hoop skirt and corset.
It’s a costume the audience will see a lot, as Holliday is in nearly every scene.
“She helps explain the historical facts but also interacts with the characters,” Holliday said. “She raises the questions that some of the audience might have.”
“She holds the play together,” Harris said.
At the first reading, the actors simply wore black, so the addition of costumes has helped them connect even more with their characters.
Woody Woodiel, who plays three characters — Allen; poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, a friend of Garrison’s; and another Herald editor, Joseph Morse — is also embracing the opportunity to add movement to his performances.
“It’s different in that before it was just a seated reading,” he said. “Now I’m able to bring physicality to the characters: from Joseph’s limp to Ephraim’s efficaciousness.”
For Charlie Bradley, the chance to embody three very different people is the best gift he could receive as an actor. Bradley plays Caleb Cushing, who was the first mayor of Newburyport and the state attorney general from 1853 to 1857; William Huse, an owner of the Herald; and the bailiff in the play’s court scene, which details Garrison’s trial and subsequent conviction for libel.
“It’s the most wonderful thing in the world,” he said of playing multiple roles. “The reward is immeasurable.”
Bradley said he is also really enjoying revisiting “The Liberator” a year and a half later.
“To be able to reprise it, it’s a really, really fun script,” he said. “(Harris has) brought the feel of the language of the time to everyone’s words. When I speak it as an actor, it speaks itself.”
John Budzyna, former executive director of the Firehouse, plays Garrison. His son, Colin, plays Garrison’s son Dordie, as well as the younger version of Garrison and the printer’s apprentice.
In addition to Thursday night’s performance, there will be a reading earlier in the day for students of River Valley Charter School in Newburyport.
If you go
What: “The Liberator”
When: Thursday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m.
Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport
How much: $10. To purchase, call 978-462-7336, visit www.firehouse.org or stop by the box office.
Dining back in time
In conjunction with next Thursday’s performance, David’s Tavern will serve popular drinks and food from the 1800s, including a rum cocktail called “The Liberator.” Theatergoers will also receive 20 percent off their food bill. The kitchen will be open from 5 to 10 p.m. David’s is located on Newburyport’s Brown Square inside the Garrison Inn, which is named after William Lloyd Garrison.