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Slave narratives come alive at Cultural Center


Volunteers act out slave narratives at the Slave Narratives Come to Life event at the Cultural Center on Saturday.

Volunteers act out slave narratives at the Slave Narratives Come to Life event at the Cultural Center on Saturday.


Staff Writer


The narratives of a number of North Carolina African-American slaves were brought to life on the Lincoln Cultural Center stage Friday night.

As area citizens, including Lincoln County Coalition of Churches Director Ola Mae Foster and Lincolnton playwright Earline Smith, read excerpts from Steve Payseur’s Slave Narratives Volumes I & II, actors depicted the stories through dramatic performance.

Cultural Center Director Cathy Davis requested Smith direct the scenes since she’s had experience writing and orchestrating a variety of Christian-based plays at the facility over the years.

Davis knew the stories had to be told the public, especially after she read Payseur’s narratives all in one night.

Actors of all ages, including Smith’s daughter, Samantha, and 11-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, participated in the production, which greatly pleased Davis.

“I am glad to see young people participating,” she said, “because they are very far removed (from slave generations).”

A few of the actors in the 14-member cast donned realistic-looking whip marks on their arms, legs and backs, showing the horrific torture some Southern slave masters forced their slaves to endure.

Justin Presnell and Thomas Braswell, both of Saw Mills, headed the cast’s makeup.

The duo typically works with characters’ makeup for the annual haunted attraction “Horror Fields” in Saw Mills.

Smith said she only had about a month to create scenes based on the narratives.

Much to her surprise, she learned while reading certain excerpts that a number of slaves liked their masters and treated them well.

Yet many of the narratives revealed the severe discipline African-Americans encountered during the 19th century.

One slave’s story discussed how she was sold three times in one day while another man’s account talked about frequently going to work without breakfast.

Lincolnton resident Vanessa Castillo played the part of “Martha Allen,” mother of a slave.

Only her second time on stage, Castillo said she couldn’t turn down another acting gig under Smith’s direction.

She tackled her first acting role in the local director’s production of “Do You See What I See?” last summer.

For Joshua Bartley, a local poet, acting in Friday night’s production was also a new experience for him.

He knew he had to assist in bringing the slave narratives to life because of slavery’s prominent historical significance.

“As sad and tragic as it is,” he said, “it happened. It’s educational, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”

Bally Wilson, a singer/songwriter who received acting recognition during his Lincolnton High School career in 1995, took on the role of a slave master alongside Bartley.

“It makes you see how these people had no control over anything,” he said. “It’s an eye-opening experience. People get a good idea of how slaves lived.”

Different from watching slave depictions on T.V., Wilson said, audience members witnessed this month’s drama in a new way.

Only a few feet away from the dramatic depictions, citizens gained a fresh perspective on the inhuman trade.

Many of the scenes showed slaves uniting in song, singing the words to many famous spiritual tunes.

Throughout the night, local residents Debra Ransom and Donna Tolliver also performed solos for the crowd.

“I have no way of knowing what those people went through,” Ransom said, “but they found comfort through songs.”

According to Payseur, slave narratives were recorded under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration during the 1930s Great Depression era.

At the time, Congress established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), meant to put people back to work as well as build bridges, schools and other important structures throughout the United States, Payseur said.

Part of the WPA also included the Federal Writers’ Project, in which reporters, editors and writers were called to interview former slaves, Payseur said.

Writers were instructed not to change any part of the stories, including slaves’ unique dialect.

A year ago, the Iron Station writer discovered some of the narratives, many of which are housed at the Library of Congress.

“I read a couple of them,” Payseur said, “and started looking for more.”

It wasn’t long before he decided to piece together narratives from slaves who lived and worked in North Carolina.

He said he compiled the second volume first, and finished his first volume the end of last year.

For more information on Payseur’s Slave Narratives Volumes I & II, call the Cultural Center at (704) 732-9055.

Image courtesy of Jaclyn Anthony / Lincoln Times-News

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