This new edition of “1776” calls us to remember the contributions of all those whose lives were unrecognized or extinguished at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, namely all who are not cisgender white males of wealth. Currently showing at American Repertory Theater (through July 24), it will soon be moving to Broadway.
The cast consists of immigrants, Native Americans, ancestors of the enslaved and oppressed, queer and trans bodies. They make the audience expect the question: Independence for whom? And what kind of nation would that be if they were even considered?
“If you think about the words that are coming out of our mouths and our bodies in this room, I think they’re going to resonate differently with the audience,” said Liz Mikel, who plays John Hancock, a Massachusetts delegate and president of the Second Continental Congress.
She and the rest of the cast, who all portray Founding Fathers, explored their personal lineage when they began rehearsing for Zoom in 2020. Professors taught them the history of this country. Mikel discovered ancestors hailing from the Carolinas, Alabama and Mississippi before eventually migrating to Texas. She traced her enslaved great-great-grandfather’s lineage to a certain plantation and beyond.
“When I think of some of my white colleagues in the play who can trace their history straight back to the past,” Mikel said. “And there is a separation from people who have been physically in the trenches to feed and clothe a nation on our backs.”
The casting and staging of the play is a clash of past and present, art that comments on history as history is regulated by law. When the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Sara Porkalob fought. The Filipino artist and activist wears large gold hoops as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, a white supremacist and the show’s main antagonist. She made a conscious decision to make her character someone who sucks the air out of a space that occupies space that challenges the innate humanity of enslaved people.
“It was the first time I really dreaded following in his footsteps,” Porkalob said. “I had never done that before because I decided in 2012 that I would no longer allow white men to have that kind of power over me.”
After graduating from a BFA program where those in charge were old white guys along with faculty and the material they read was all written by old white guys, Porkalob said, never again.
“Never again will I allow white male rules to dominate my life so completely,” she said. But on the night of the verdict, Porkalob says, that day she sobbed before her big number “Molasses to Rum,” in which Rutledge calls out delegates from the North for profiting from the slavery they are trying to abolish.
“What am I smelling from the north? Could it be the scent of hypocrisy?” Porkalob said as Rutledge. ‘Because who’s holding the other end of that filthy purse, Mr Adams? Our northern brethren are somewhat tender towards our slaves. They don’t like keeping slaves! Oh no. But they are willing to be considerable bearers of slaves for others.”
The daughter of two lesbians, one an immigrant from the Philippines and the other a black American, Porkalob grew up surrounded by strong, opinionated women. She has written plays inspired by her family’s heritage. As a woman of color, the role of an oppressor can take a heavy toll, especially on this evening.
“To really go into it and push through with those words and lean into the violence of that song so the people in the audience can feel the violence of that story,” she said. “And here we are. Here we still feel the reverberations, the after-effects of our founding of the country.”
The actors in “1776” look the audience in the eye. One of those moments includes the only line not included in the original production. It comes from a letter Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams when he was promoting independence. She said to him, “Remember the ladies.”
“All men would be tyrants if they could,” she wrote. “Unless special care and attention is given to the ladies, we are determined to foment rebellion and will not bind ourselves to laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
As part of the play’s debut, ART worked with ArtsBoston and The Network of Arts Administrators of Color to curate programming and process the story as part of their Declaration Reclamation workshops. There were events in libraries across the city that shared insights into immigrant experiences, explored family histories, and got kids building the kinds of monuments they wanted to see.
“I’m really interested in who feels they don’t have access to this story of American history, who feels completely disconnected from it, who feels left out by it, who feels hurt by it,” said Julia Schachnik, Community Organizing Manager by ART.
One of their most recent events was called Black Reparations: Apology, Repair, and Reconciliation. It provided an opportunity for dialogue among professionals, all working, researching and active, about how to hold this nation accountable for the harm it has inflicted on Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.
“I’m here in this conversation because of the connection, the deep connection between Indigenous peoples and enslaved Black people and their experience, the duality of our experiences in founding this country,” said Mea Johnson, the Mescalero Apache and is a community and cultural organizer. “The way our stories got erased.”
In June, Boston became the first major city to formally, albeit symbolically, apologize for its role in transatlantic slavery. Cambridge is also in the midst of this work through its Racial Justice and Equity Commission with two funds, one focused on slave trade reparations while the other focuses on restitution for the war on drugs, according to Saskia VannJames, another panellist and a racial and health justice lobbyist and board member of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council.
“Reparation is not an abstract science,” said VannJames. “It starts with the people. People have already moved. We got organized. We are incredibly grateful for all of our elders and ancestors, for the breadcrumbs you left us, that we go back and take them and let them know together.”
In “1776” Benjamin Franklin says that the Founding Fathers were not demigods. They were mortals trying to found a new nation. That work continues today, a process of healing and lifting that confronts the past and envisions a new future. Actress Sara Porkalob knows the highlight of her career won’t be on Broadway, where she plays dead white people.
“Seeing my fellow actors really making these roles their own was so exciting and so much fun,” Porkalob said. “And knowing that 1776 is not the end of our journey.”