Monday, November 03, 2008

English course inspires play-writing for Illinois Issues editor

By Courtney Westlake

It was at an alumni event several years ago when Beverley Scobell, projects editor for Illinois Issues magazine, first heard the story of New Philadelphia, a community that was established in Pike County by a free black man in 1836.

“I was captivated by the story; I couldn't believe I had lived this long in the state and not heard it,” Scobell said. “I pitched it as an idea for the magazine about the archaeology being done there.”

Then, after reading the book about the community, called “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” by Juliet E.K. Walker, and taking an English class at UIS, Scobell decided to turn out a new form of writing to express her thoughts about the subject: play-writing.

“I thought it was such a story of courage, that it was an incredible love story of a man who so wanted not only his own freedom but also the freedom of his entire family,” she said. “He came to an Illinois frontier not particularly welcoming to African-Americans and established this town. It became a multi-racial town. It apparently was a town where people of all different kinds of backgrounds got along.”

Scobell took a course taught by Dr. Marcellus Leonard, who is now the director of First-Year Programs at UIS. While in the class, she wrote her play about the Springfield Race Riots and New Philadelphia, a story which is not historical but is based on fact, she said. Scobell's play is from the point of view of the “spiritual descendants” of New Philadelphia, families of different races who are caught up in the violence of the Race Riots. A character, Aunt Lucy Ann, the family storyteller, tries to calm the children with the story of New Philadelphia, a place “where character was more important than skin color,” Scobell said.

“I thought the play might be a way to introduce schoolchildren to a part of Illinois history,” she said. “The story I was trying to tell was of New Philadelphia, but the technique I was using was the 1908 riots. Until recently, these two events in our past have not been well-known.”

Leonard recognized the timeliness of the play, Scobell said, and suggested that the UIS TV station produce it as readers’ theatre. Over the summer, volunteers dedicated their time to work on it, and it was filmed a couple of months ago. It will be aired in the near future.

“Characters kept talking to me, and I would go to work on it and find a new name,” Scobell said. “As everybody tells me, I have way too many characters, and it jumps around to different time periods, so it is a director's challenge, if not nightmare.”

Scobell said she is nervous about seeing her new story acted out but is looking forward to seeing the finished product.

“This is a totally new process for me. The kind of writing I do at Illinois Issues is reporting, putting facts together, but I hadn't really done anything creative,” she said. “It's one thing to write it on your computer at home, but another thing to have people read it and speak the lines. It’s exciting.”