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Lifestyle

February 20, 2014

Spotlight on Garrison

Play looks at life of Newburyport's famous abolitionist

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.”

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