Speeches of Black Liberation

Channeling Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum was born out of the darkest days and suffering of McCarthyism. As part of the company’s education work, and from its earliest days, they have presented an Americana show. Earnestine Phillips and Gerald C. Rivers took part in a special presentation about the history of the Theatricum on Thursday evening.

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First, Earnestine presented a speech by Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a slavery abolitionist and women’s right activist, who was born a slave but free from 1826. She was the first black woman ever to win a case against a white man. She made her famous ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ speech in 1851 in Akron, Ohio.

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Gerald then spoke as Martin Luther King (1929-1968); in fact, it was as if he was channeling him. Galvanising his black brothers and sisters into living successfully with new racial integration, King’s speech includes the line: ‘sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, and like Shakespeare wrote poetry.’ The effect on the audience, and Gerald, was astonishing, prophetic and powerful, and it still is as I listen to it again.

Gerald then goes on to talk about his experience as being cast as an actor of colour at the Theatricum – ‘are there any brothers here at all?’ – and the wonderful Ellen saying to him, ‘make this place your home’. He then tells a story about the time when Moonshine had a real dog and about a special visitor who memorably appeared at the end of one of the Theatricum shows.

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