|On the Side of Angels|
|Posted by Graham Humphrey|
|on June 29, 2012|
Participants at this year’s THV institute will choose form six day-long field experiences on Wednesday, July 25. At Mount Gulian Historic Site, Torrance Harvey--an actor and social studies teacher at Newburgh Free Academy--will portray James F. Brown in a living history performance, "On the Side of Angels." Brown was enslaved in Maryland, escaped, gained his freedom, and became well-known as a master gardener in the Beacon-Newburgh area.
The performance is part of "The Shifting Context of the Slavery Debate in the North, 1799-1865: Three Generations of Verplancks and James F. Brown," which also features site director Elaine Hayes and Myra Young Armstead, professor of history at Bard College and author of "Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America."
With school out, I was able to get in touch with Torrance, shown here in character. He explained that while he initially had reservations about portraying a former slave he became more and more interested as he learned about James F. Brown and his connection to the region.
In the end, he agreed to work with Mount Gulian on a short film as well as occasional productions of "On the Side of Angels." Torrance described the experience as being “invigorating and inspiring” in part because it allowed him to merge his worlds as a high school history teacher and a professionally-trained actor.
Through the intense and rigorous process of researching and learning about this amazing man, he was able to dig deep into the mindset and the heart of the nation during the Civil War and begin to understand how torn the nation was on issues such as slavery and how big the cotton trade was not only for Southerners but Northern businessmen as well. Torrance also connected to his own family history and traced his family genealogy back to 1853 on his mother's side. He discovered that one of his ancestors was born into slavery in Halifax, NC and once freed from slavery, took his owners last name, which turned out to be very similar to James F. Brown's story.
Often, Torrance told me, he found himself “in a pool of tears while reading and rehearsing lines for the production.” He believes that by playing this role he has, in many ways, become James F. Brown both physically and emotionally. He sees Brown’s story as “common story of life, enslavement, to educational accomplishments to freedom and suffrage all before the 20th Century!” James "was not only a strong man who escaped from slavery, but became free and had the integrity to be honored and respected highly by the very wealthy Dutch Verplanck Family."
Audiences have responded in the "most grateful, humbling and yet intriguing manner" and he has had standing ovations as well as emotional out breaks on occasion. Ultimately, Torrance sees this role as his most important and meaningful work—in school or on the stage and believes that James F. Brown's story is "just one of the many heroic stories yet to be explored and exposed to the world."