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In the Twi language of Ghana, the word “sankofa” means “go back and fetch it.” The word is often associated with the image of a bird, its head craned, looking behind at what has come before and clutching an egg in its beak, but with its feet planted forward, aimed at what comes next.
“It means that we can look at the past to get what we need for a better future,” wrote playwright and director Daniel Carlton in educational materials for “Freedom Flight,” a one-act play with music that will debut at the Foundry Theater on Friday, Jan. 13.
The play, performed by Mad River Theater Works, is open to all ages, but aims to speak directly to audience members in third through eighth grades. Following the local debut of “Freedom Flight,” the locally based theater company will perform the play on tour nationwide.
In “Freedom Flight,” both the image of sankofa as a bird and its deeper thematic significance bolster the narrative. The play presents the history of Addison White, a 19th-century Black American who escaped from enslavement in Kentucky. White made his way to Mechanicsburg, Ohio, where he was aided by community members, particularly abolitionist and farmer Udney Hyde and his daughter, Amanda, in standing against pursuing federal marshals.
His story is interwoven with that of Evelyn, a fictional Black teenager and aspiring ornithologist in the 21st century who is depicted as a descendant of Addison White. Following a racist encounter with a security guard at a park where she is birdwatching, Evelyn dreams of interacting with Addison White and those he meets on his journey, putting her in dialogue with her ancestral past as she considers her future.
With the exception of a break in December for end-of-year holidays, the company members of Mad River Theater Works, most of whom hail from outside of Ohio, have since November lived and rehearsed “Freedom Flight” on the campus of Antioch College. During that time, they’ve worked collaboratively to delve into Carlton’s script, synthesizing their characters and honing the show’s text and music.
“[‘Freedom Flight’] is not a play about slavery — this is a play about liberation,” Carlton said during a recent rehearsal at the Foundry Theater.
Carlton, a Black playwright based in New York City, added that understanding Addison White’s history in this way — as the story of the self-liberation of a Black man in community with white allies — is crucial to “Freedom Flight.”
“I hate the narrative that [those who escaped from enslavement] were just helpless Black people — it discounts all of their liberation aspirations and dreams and actions,” he said. “Without [white abolitionist] Udney Hyde, Addison White might have been captured — but Udney Hyde didn’t take him off that plantation. … We need to leave the young people with the sense that we can work together.”
Mad River Theater Works, which was formed in Yellow Springs in 1978 and moved to West Liberty in 1985 and later to Zanesfield and Bellefontaine, returned to the village last year. “Freedom Flight” is not the first play based on the life of Addison White that has been performed by the company: “Freedom Bound,” another play about White, was part of its repertoire for about three decades.