Nearly two centuries after 35 slaves and free black men were executed for their role in a thwarted 1822 slave insurrection that may or may not have actually been planned, their dark story still looms over Charleston.
In early June, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free black man, found himself at the center of what would have been the largest slave uprising in U.S. history had it succeeded. The plan he was accused of masterminding included killing all the white inhabitants of the Charleston peninsula before seizing ships and sailing to the free Black Republic of Haiti. On May 30, days before the revolt would have taken place, a slave leaked the plan to his master. As conspirators were gathered, arrested, and interrogated, Vesey's name was eventually revealed, and on June 22 he was apprehended at the home of his second wife. Less than two weeks later, after secret trials from which no records survived, Vesey and six others were hanged at dawn.
After the trial and subsequent hangings of 27 more men (collectively the second largest mass execution in U.S. history), as well as the forced disbanding of Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal Church, S.C. Governor Bennett criticized the court process, saying, "There is no persuasive evidence that a conspiracy in fact existed or at most it was a vague and unfortunate plan in the minds or tongues of a few colored townsmen." Speculation has never been settled as to whether there was ever a plot, or if the whole affair was a result of fearful hysteria.
The Denmark Vesey Spirit of Freedom Monument committee has spent years working to erect a monument to the man they view as a heralded freedom fighter, but have consistently run into obstacles from those who see him as a terrorist. After being denied a spot in Marion Square they acquired space in Hampton Park, and plans for a statue of Vesey's likeness are currently underway despite opposition.
"I'm not a fan of applying our values of today to the past; this is cherry-picking history," said Citadel professor of history Kyle Sinisi in an April 2006 City Paper story. Sinisi sees the movement to memorialize Vesey as a product of our current "obsession with race," and is personally "not overly enthusiastic about erecting a monument to a man bound and determined to create mayhem." He points out that in the 1820s, many black freedmen owned slaves, and that slavery had yet to gain the "stigma" attached to it today.
Julian Wiles, founder and director of Charleston Stage, feels that the still unsettled debate over Vesey's legacy is fine fodder for a play. To that end, he's written an elegant script around an imagined conversation between Denmark and Captain Joseph Vesey, the sea captain who purchased Denmark in the Virgin Islands, brought him to Charleston, and became the source of Denmark's chosen surname. The play takes place on the eve of Denmark's hanging and focuses on the question of whether his fate was "sealed by insurrection or injustice."
Clay Middleton, a Charleston Stage veteran of The Seat of Justice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many other plays stars in the title role with Jimmy Hager as Capt. Vesey. Hager has appeared on screen in One Tree Hill, Surface, and Walker and national commercials, as well as in Charleston Stage productions Ominium Gatherum, The Seat of Justice, and as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Director Wiles is himself no stranger to historical drama, having written and directed 27 original plays in his 30 years heading Charleston Stage, including 2003's Gershwin at Folly and another racially-charged production, 2004's The Seat of Justice, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of South Carolina's role in the Brown v. School Board of Education ruling.
"What actually spurred this play was the war on terror," Wiles says. "Knowing about the guys held in the brig in Goose Creek and the atrocities at Guantanamo made me remember having read a book about Vesey years ago."
Wiles sees a direct correlation between how the population dealt with an amazing threat on the public order in 1822 and how we're dealing with terrorism today.
"We tend to think that we settle things in history, but the very same issues confronted people in Charleston in 1822 as what we as a nation are facing in 2007," says Wiles. "How do you deal with an extraordinary threat? How far do you go? What is the rule of law and how do you find out if people are really guilty or innocent?"
Although those questions may never be definitively answered regarding Vesey, continuing to ask them both in historical and theatre contexts may help cast a light on the struggle to protect personal liberties in the face of security threats today. Weapons of mass destruction that never turn up, secret tribunals, and coercion and torture are both themes of this play and current headlines on CNN.com. Denmark Vesey: Insurrection may very well turn heads, raise eyebrows, and open eyes. — Stratton Lawrence
Denmark Vesey: Insurrection • Piccolo Spoleto's Theatre Series • $25, $20 seniors, $15 students • (2 hours) • May 26, 27, June 2, 9 at 6 p.m.; May 26, June 2, 9 at 9 p.m.; May 29, 30, 31, June 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, at 7 p.m. • American Theater, 446 King St. • 554-6060