by Ted Williams III
The 1619 Process
I won a grant from the Illinois Arts Council to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of African Americans. With this support, 1619: The Journey of a People first premiered at Kennedy-King College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago, in 2019. Told through the multi-disciplinary tool of musical theater, it strives to convey a sizable piece of this history, while taking an unflinching look at America’s current conditions. Although the anniversary of the first enslaved to arrive in the US has been commemorated in multiple ways, I felt particularly called to use theater. This medium has long been an unparalleled tool for transmitting the stories of history.
The 1619 Journey at a Glimpse
The show immediately opens with The Journey, a hip-hop and African musical fusion that purposely uses dance to tie centuries of people together through the power of rhythm. It then explores the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade through a piece called Captured. Audiences might expect a direct journey through the next 250 years of American slavery. However, as a writer, predictability is a cardinal sin. So, the piece jumps immediately into a contemporary space where a modern character conveys a comedic connection to this difficult story.
I Thought We Were Free is a seven-minute musical journey through the Reconstruction era. Part comedy, tragedy, and defiant social commentary, the piece is the most historically instructive one in the production. Booker T and WEB is a hip-hop debate between two starkly different ideologies for social progress. Something for the Pain is a jazzy exploration of the impact of collective trauma on interpersonal relationships. My most personal expression is a spoken word piece I perform entitled After the Dream. Living in the Trump era was a source of anxiety for many people of color. Erroneously, I assumed that this nation had moved past much of its historic xenophobic rhetoric and actions. However, the rise in these types of expressions in the current culture has left art as one of the only safe forms of political expression. After the Dream is an artistic statement that boldly ties the spirit of Dr. King to the unapologetic battles waged by today’s racial equality movements.
Our finale piece, Chains are Gone, is a triumphant musical theater celebration of the 400-year journey. It reminds us that on the other side of trial lies greatness. As a conflicted person of color, who has seen the blatant hypocrisy of our nation yet takes great pride in American citizenship, I wanted to end this work on a positive note. Music gives people hope through perilous times. Chains are Gone declares that our best days are still in front of us.
“Many Americans want to forget this nation’s past, assuming that discussions about the impact of slavery only serve to fuel further division. Recalling our journey in this nation is hardly an effort to divide or perpetuate victimhood. It is an admonishment of America—a reminder of its promise to all people.”
The ancient Jewish community is encouraged to remember its collective heritage. Following the Holocaust, modern Jews adopted the phrase “Zachor” as a rallying cry to remember the past as its imprint on lives can light a way forward. Many Americans want to forget this nation’s past, assuming that discussions about the impact of slavery only serve to fuel further division.
“Although the anniversary of the first enslaved to arrive in the US has been commemorated in multiple ways, I felt particularly called to use theater. This medium has long been an unparalleled tool for transmitting the stories of history.”
Recalling our journey in this nation is hardly an effort to divide or perpetuate victimhood. It is an admonishment of America—a reminder of its promise to all people. It helps us understand the source of our present conditions and to have the capacity to address them honestly and holistically. Doing this is hard work. It requires empathy, humility, patience, and courage. I hope 1619: The Journey of a People can be a part of a much-needed national reckoning.