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History Gets Dramatic Treatment at the Rokeby

State of the Arts


Published May 30, 2007 at 8:37 p.m.

Some 30-odd people seated on metal folding chairs are crammed into a small room at the Rokeby Museum, and more are arriving. Director Jane Williamson greets visitors at the front door, her ear glued to a portable phone. "Is David on the road somewhere, 'trapped' in traffic?" She chuckles at her little joke, but that doesn't disguise the slight urgency in her voice. Trapped is the name of the play all these people are here to see on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and David is David Budbill, the Wolcott playwright who will talk about the show. Which is scheduled to begin in 10 minutes.

Moments later, Williamson pops her head into the former parlor of Vermont's most famous abolitionist, Rowland T. Robinson, to confirm that Budbill is trapped - held up by a Memorial Day parade in Hinesburg. "But he'll be here soon," she assures, "if he drives fast."

The mostly senior crowd doesn't seem worried. Many appear to know one another, and the comforting buzz of pleasantries fills the room. A seventysomething woman, adorned with a green-and-yellow straw hat that matches her pantsuit, exclaims to a friend, "I went to an Ultimate Frisbee game yesterday, in Williston!" The friend and her husband murmur "Oohh!" Two small children display the early warning signs of boredom. In one corner, an aged grandfather clock is silent, no longer sure what to do with its hands.

Williamson fills a few minutes telling the audience that the museum is "hoping to wrap up funding for a new building with meeting space." So far they've raised 1.2 million, she notes with awe. Five hundred thousand to go. The goal is to provide the 200-plus-year-old Robinson home - an important stop on the Underground Railroad - with a 21st-century facility, to offer space and audiovisual sophistication to programs like this one. Today's entertainment is free, Williamson says pointedly. The donation box is in the back room, along with the refreshments.

At showtime, there's still no sign of Budbill. "Let's go ahead and watch this," suggests Williamson, "because David was going to mostly talk afterwards anyway." "This" is not an actual play but a DVD of a staged reading of Trapped that was performed last fall at Waterfront Theatre in Burlington. Volunteers pull down the old-fashioned blinds to darken the room, and all eyes fasten expectantly on the elevated television monitor. Seconds later, Budbill slips in quietly and stands at the back.

Williamson appears again, on-screen, to introduce the play, which "is about what it's like to be boxed in," she explains. Budbill based Trapped on three letters concerning a fugitive slave named Jesse, who lived and worked at Rokeby around 1837. What the documents don't divulge, Budbill made up - call it historical license. The other characters in the story are Mingo, an older freed slave who oversees the Robinson farm; Jesse's owner in North Carolina, Ephraim Elliott; and Robinson - whose ideology, ironically, prevents him from providing Jesse with all the help he needs.

And therein lies a surprising twist on the play's title. Jesse has saved $150 to buy his freedom from the trap of slavery, but Robinson refuses to loan him the additional $150 Elliott demands, because the devout Quaker doesn't believe in "buying" humans. Not surprisingly, Jesse disdains this quibble in Robinson's principles. "What's wrong with white people?" he laments. Slaveholders or abolitionists, he observes, "All they think about is money!"

Soon Jesse disappears, presumably to Canada, and the rest of his story disappears with him. What is known is that Robinson later altered his beliefs, perhaps based on this incident, and agreed to help purchase the freedom of slaves.

A highlight of Trapped is François Clemmons' stirring a cappella rendition of "There Is a Balm in Gilead." The opera-trained artist-in-residence at Middlebury College also plays the role of Mingo. Jesse, who has a song of his own, is no slouch in the vocal department, either: He's played by Eric Brooks, a singer in Vermont's professional chamber chorus Counterpoint and a former cast member of Budbill's play Judevine. The rest of the play is spoken. Robinson is played by Vermont Stage Company Artistic Director Mark Nash; David Huddle, a University of Vermont English professor and writer, puts his Southern accent to good use in the role of Elliott.

"This play was a way of making things real," Budbill suggests after the screening. He concedes that he concocted Jesse's implied flight to Montréal, though the destination is historically plausible. "If Vermont was so welcoming to black people, why is Vermont the whitest state in the nation?" Budbill asks rhetorically. "The situation is extremely complex."

Two concepts he wanted to convey in Trapped, Budbill says, are that both ideology and money are often considered "more important" than any individual person. Some things never change.