Keep your head down. Never look the slave masters (white owners) in the eye. These are some of the most striking instructions the audience is given during the MOJOAA immersive production Escape to Freedom.
Escape to Freedom is a tour de force in interactive theater. Here, The Mordecai Historic Park becomes a living history museum and is transformed back into the North Carolina plantation it once was, populated by both slaves and slave masters. Actors portraying both, guide the audience through the grounds to experience antebellum slave life.
From being on a slave ship to going to the auction block to going to work on the plantation, the audience is immediately and easily immersed in the whole experience. I was put to work shucking corn, picking potatoes, and preparing meals for the master. When asked, I even had to respond, “Mr. Prescott was my master.”
Kurt Benrud, who plays Mr. Prescott, shared with me afterward, “When my character looked your character in the eye, I experienced that duality that hits me onstage when there is a break between me and my character.”
“As Mr. Prescott inspected ‘the livestock,’ I felt the sense of personal shame, that I and the other white actors have to keep hidden, to a high degree.”
It’s amazing to run, find a safe house, attend a wedding where two slaves jump the broom and finally escape to freedom. And a word to the wise, when they say, “wear comfortable shoes as you will be moving through the park during the experience,” they aren’t kidding.
For both black and white audiences, and people of mixed races, this is a chance to go back in time and experience what our ancestors went through, being trapped in an inescapable world. It is more than experiential – it is something epic that is almost indescribable until it is experienced first-hand. This was, in fact, a reality for many and is part of our legacy as Americans, which is why I think every American should not only experience it but also participate in the talkback afterward to reflect on its meaning and historical significance.
This is the fifth annual production of this interactive play. Benrud and some of the other cast members told me afterward that the drama is so real that it is hard for them to hold back their very real tears. It’s hard to watch, yes, but it is a must-see for white and black audiences of all ages alike.
For more information on the production Escape to Freedom, visit https://www.mojoaa.org/#our-story-1.