Thursday, June 9, 2011

KIMBA KONNECTIONS: PHILLIS: A MUSICAL DRAMA IN THREE ACTS by Billie Lou Watt, music by Martin Newman (Friendship Press, 1967)



Of all the "Kimba Konnections" that I've managed to "korral," this is the prize "maverick" of the lot: a brief historical play, distributed by the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches, that was more than likely written either during the production of Kimba or immediately afterwards. In view of the extensive Production Notes preceding the play, it was evidently intended for performance by church groups or amateur theatrical companies. Unlike other FP plays listed on the inside back cover of the 56-page pamphlet, however, it has relatively little theological/"current events" content, but is instead a pretty straight -- albeit highly simplified and somewhat fictionalized -- recounting of the story of pre-Revolutionary African-American poetess Phillis Wheatley.

The obvious question here is, why Phillis Wheatley? I wish I could tell you, but Watt's Production Notes give no hint. Nor is there a preface explaining the choice of subject matter and how it might be "relevant" to the theatergoers of 1967. The "Black Power" movement was at its peak at the time, but there's very little overt "militancy" in the approach taken here. The only detail that might have been adjusted in response to 1967 realities is the depiction of merchant John Wheatley, the head of the prosperous Boston household that purchases Phillis as a domestic slave in 1761. John and his wife "Mrs. Wheatley" (no, the latter never does get a proper name) have a contretemps over the propriety of owning a slave, and John later questions the efforts of his wife and children to educate Phillis, first on the grounds of Phillis being an African and then on the grounds of her being female. From the evidence that I could gather, however, John Wheatley was supportive of the idea of educating Phillis from the start, as opposed to warming up to the idea later, as he does in the play. I suppose that Watt reasoned that the play had to have a "racial heavy," at least for a while, to resonate with a contemporary audience. (Who knows but that memories of this Kimba episode might have played a role, as well.)



HOW many degrees of separation?

PHILLIS also fudges a bit when it comes to timelines and the poetess' ultimate fate, though the changes are fairly understandable in light of the play's overall positive tone. Phillis was only partially emancipated following the publication of her first volume of poetry, her trip to England, and her mistress' death; her full freedom would have to wait until John Wheatley had died. The premature shackle-busting is set to coincide with the coming of pre-Revolutionary War agitation: the Committees of Correspondence and the like. The intended symbolism is impossible to overlook. Likewise, it's not surprising that Phillis' unhappy "post-Wheatleys" life -- poverty, a husband jailed for debt, and ultimate death in childbirth -- doesn't get treated here. Less understandable is the complete lack of mention of Phillis' first great poem, a tribute to the great Methodist preacher George Whitefield following the latter's death in 1770. The poem that brings Phillis to the attention of Boston's leading lights (and ultimately leads many of them to vouch for her abilities in an Affidavit) is instead "Sons of Liberty." That's a reasonable substitution, but to overlook a significant poem with a religious theme in a play published by a church organization seems a little peculiar.

If Kimba had any sort of influence on the preparation of this play, it probably lies in the music. For such a short play, there are quite a few songs -- eight in all -- and several of them have a certain Kimba-esque feel, none more so than "Someday":

Using " 'way" in place of "away" is a definite Watt-ism; I can't count the number of times Kimba (or, for that matter, Astro Boy) shouted "Go 'way!" to a villain or pest during the series. Obviously, Billie Lou had the advantage of not having to match words to (or cover over) Japanese lyrics here.

Whatever reasons Watt had for writing PHILLIS, she definitely did her homework as it related to small details. Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley address one another quite formally, as husbands and wives were wont to do during the 18th century. Anachronisms, even mild ones, are noticeable by their absence. When the characters dance (and they do, on several occasions), they use dances of the period. The "other American heroes" (apart from the briefly-seen John Hancock) never do materialize, but Friendship Press may be at fault there for providing inaccurate-yet-eye-catching back-cover bumpf.

The genesis of this play will probably remain a mystery, but it's a fascinating curio nonetheless. I wonder how many times it was actually produced -- and whether Billie Lou herself ever tried to do so?

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