Friday, November 9, 2007

Margaret Garner, Fugitive Slave

This is from "The Kay Bourne Arts Report" published by The Color of Film Collaborative, Inc. and Kay Bourne. In preparing for young Sallie each night, I try to imagine how she came to be in the hands of Michael Rowen and what her life was like before she was a slave. When I think of the lengths some of my ancestors went through to try to free themselves or just to survive their circumstances, I am amazed at the sacrifices they were willing to make and wonder what situation I could possibly find myself in that would make me do the same.


For the opera "MARGARET GARNER," Toni MORRISON revisited the account of a trial in February, 1856 which had inspired her to write her novel "Beloved." The two act opera, first performed in May, 2005, is one of the few operas written about the African American experience, the other notable examples being George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" and "Treemonisha" by Scott Joplin, an African American, as is Morrison.

New York City Opera, housed at Lincoln City, recently staged the emotionally involving "Margaret Garner" with its charming lyrical score from Richard Danielpour and a searing libretto by Morrison. Brilliantly directed by Tazewell Thompson and magnificently sung and acted with Tracie Luck in the title role, the stunning production so captivated the audience that cheers went up when a cruel overseer was killed in one of the twists of the gripping story.

Margaret Garner, 22, had escaped slavery on a night of record freezing temperatures, crossing the frozen Ohio River on foot in an expedition led by her husband who had been hired out to labor on a nearby estate. They were fleeing to Cincinnati, Ohio, a free state, less than 20 miles away from the Richwood, Kentucky estate, Maplewood, where she toiled and had been repeatedly raped by its owner Archibald K. Gaines.

When the U.S. Marshalls, including Gaines, find them, there is a shoot out in which the husband wounds two of the deputies. Faced with the imminent return to slavery, she slits her daughter's throat and attempts to murder her three other small children rather than see them returned to slavery. Because Margaret Garner was subject to the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and also liable for murder in the state of Ohio, the trial became the longest fugitive slave case of the antebellum era. Had she destroyed property by killing the child or committed murder? (This) became the tangled issue that lengthened the trial.

Morrison has said that "Beloved" was about forgetting. About the avoidance of the subject of slavery that neither Whites nor Blacks are comfortable thinking about. That shutting out the past became structurally what held the book together. She approached the libretto knowing that in opera there is very little nuance and ambiguity. So while Morrison does portray Margaret Garner as a complex character, with the opera she keeps more to the facts of her life as Morrison could determine them from news accounts. "If you're going to make it bigger and theatrical than you have to get your facts right," she told City Opera dramaturg Cori Nelson about how the libretto differs from the novel inspired by the same life. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

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