Stage Manager Jean Schultz of Cassopolis sets up a background shot that will be used in the diorama, Kentucky at Sunrise, by Dr. Von Washington, to be the feature at this year's International Festival Sunday, Sept. 13. (Photo Provided)
Stage Manager Jean Schultz of Cassopolis sets up a background shot that will be used in the diorama, Kentucky at Sunrise, by Dr. Von Washington, to be the feature at this year's International Festival Sunday, Sept. 13. (Photo Provided)

Archived Story

Underground Railroad comes alive

Published 3:19pm Wednesday, September 9, 2009

When fugitive slaves escaped on the Underground Railroad, they prayed to just make it North out of bondage and into freedom. During a hot August in 1847, one particular group did just that, arriving in the rural area of Cass County, Michigan. However, when Kentucky slave owners learned of their location, the fugitives would be caught in the middle of protection by local Quakers, and repossession by slave owners.

The courage, compassion and camaraderie of Quakers of Cass County is the theme of Kentucky at Sunrise, an original drama of that real-life Kentucky Raid.

The storytelling event, created by Sr. Von Washington, features descendants of both Cass County Quakers and fugitive slaves of the raid and will be the featured presentation during the Seventh International Festival event scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept., 13, at Ross Beatty High School, 22721 Diamond Cove Road, Cassopolis. The event is free with the play at 2 p.m.

In addition to Washington’s play, Sisters of the Nile Belly Dancers; and the Youth of Judah choir also will perform.

“The play is not only significant to Cassopolis and our history, but the history of the Underground Railroad, Michigan, and our entire country,” said Ruth Andrews, a member of the Minority Coalition who has organized the event with funding support by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. “We have people in the play whose family played a role in this history, and that just brings us full circle to showing how the courage of their ancestors helped change our history.”
Unlike traditional stage plays, Washington has taken this story and created a tableau vivant. This style of play derives from the French word for living picture. As costumed characters strike a pose, the narrators bring their individual story to life through dynamic storytelling and historical facts.

Kentucky at Sunrise was originally performed in 1994, when Kellogg Foundation commissioned Washington to write the play. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act prevented helping slaves escape to freedom, and this play emphasizes the role Michigan played in that.
“People, black and white, freed and enslaved, worked together to make a change toward freedom. While we will never know all those who contributed, this play gives tribute to them all,” Washington said. “It is educational, entertaining and historically important.”

Washington, a native of Albion, has written more than 25 theatrical creations, many of which are performed by various theatre production companies across the country. He has been directing WMU’s Multicultural Theatre program for the last 20 and is a recipient of the States Arts Achievement Award, the Kalamazoo Community Medal of the Arts Award, and recently inducted into the WMU School of Communication’s Alumni Academy.

The Minority Coalition of Cass County International Festival is one of the only free artistic and cultural experiences in southwest Michigan. There will be free handicap-accessible transportation to and from the festival site.

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