#PrudenceOTP - The Journey from Classroom to Stage
This blog was written by Historian, Beth Miller as part of our on-going series featuring the history behind the show and how it came to be.
A feminist awakening led me back to try college for a third time to major in Women’s Studies. My first class was WS 101, a survey course that covered much, in brief. My professor told us about Prudence Crandall who in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison penned on January 18, 1833 asked his opinion on “exchanging” her “white students for colored” at the Canterbury Female Boarding School. I wondered, “Why don’t I know about Prudence? And, why is there so little written about the students?”
A few bios have been written about Prudence, and most of these histories highlight the vulnerability of Prudence and her students. This makes them less political, less heroic, and, ultimately, martyred them. For example, drawings portray Prudence’s students as young girls, but they were in their late teens and early 20s
By turning Prudence into a martyr, she also became singular, and her students became props, tokens of neutered political dissent that allowed people to sympathize without self-reflection. Martyrdom liberates people from the responsibility to reflect, remember and learn, and then, to do.
Writing about Prudence and her students was my effort at sharing a true history of real women with complex motives working within a sexist and racist system. I succeeded with an award-winning essay, but still, Prudence haunted me. People still did not know her or her students. Indeed, I didn’t know her or her students. To know them, they needed to come to life. A play, I thought.
I knew I was not the person to convert the essay to a play. As a historian who worked to reclaim fragmented and undervalued narratives, I flesh out as much detail as possible from primary source data. To invent would compromise the veracity of the history. As a play, historic fiction plays a critical role revealing deeper, more resonant truths: personality conflicts, a mother’s love and fear, the evolution of white hero to true ally.
A decade after I wrote “Prudence Crandall: Challenging Race and Gender Boundaries in Antebellum America”, I attended a cocktail event at the Barr Foundation, ostensibly to meet the Director in hopes of making a favorable impression for the nonprofit at which I worked. I was chatting with one of the Barr staff and, for some unknown reason, I brought up Prudence, the students’ stories, and how I had always thought it should be a play. “We have a playwright who works here,” she said. She turned and pointed, “Stefan: he works in communications and writes plays.”
I walked up to Stefan, and said, “Hello, my name is Beth. I heard you write plays.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Don't forget to get your TICKETS NOW for OTP's An Education in Prudence - February 9-24 at St. John's Church, Jamaica Plain