On June 27, 2017, Mark Sumner’s friends and family buried him in a quiet North Carolina cemetery.
But tonight, in a wooded grove some miles away, Keisha Little Eagle will resurrect Sumner. And she’ll do it by running away.
Mark Sumner was 93 when he died last week in Chapel Hill NC. In his long life he did many things: became an Eagle Scout; served in the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two; studied engineering in North Dakota; taught riflery for the NRA; and was a professor at several colleges.
As an academic, he settled in at UNC at Chapel Hill. There he pursued his overriding passion for community-based local theater, and helped build a network of community-based outdoor theatres that dot the Southeast.
Along the way, he wrote plays. His first play, The Scarlet Arrow, written while still in high school won him a prize in a statewide contest. One of his last was “Pathway to Freedom,” about the Underground Railroad.
“Pathway” premiered in 1994, at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in Alamance County NC. It’s now being readied for its 23rd season, beginning on July 13.
And that’s where Keisha Little Eagle enters. In Sumner’s script she plays Effie, who, along with her husband William and two children, is enslaved by the Bradley family.
The Bradleys are relatively benign masters; but as the play opens, their daughter marries a Mississippi “gentleman”, Peter Stone.
Effie and the other servants are relaxing after working the busy & festive wedding party, when Dr. Bradley, the bride’s father, abruptly appears, to announce he has given Effie to Elizabeth as a wedding present: Effie and her two children will go with her to Mississippi, while Effie’s husband William must stay with the Bradleys in Carolina.
Dr. Bradley shrugs off the couple’s protest about being separated, remarking that slave unions aren’t legal.
But Effie’s horror goes deeper: She reveals that she spent her childhood on that same Mississippi plantation, and is still traumatized by memories of the Stone family’s constant cruelty to slaves there.
Once Dr. Bradley leaves, Effie tells Will she would rather die than take her children to Mississippi, and that the family’s only chance go stay together is to try to escape.
They first turn for help to Preacher John, the local black patriarch, and then appeal to nearby Quakers Levi and Katy Coffin. The Coffins raise money to hire a guide named Jeter Hatfield.
Hatfield’s charge is to lead the runaways northwest, through several hundred perilous miles of thick forests, steep mountains, and cold creeks, traveling only by night. Then if they can make it across the Ohio River, freedom beckons on the other side.
Hatfield warns them it will be an arduous, treacherous journey. They’ll have to dodge armed slave hunters all the way. No pacifist Quaker, Hatfield packs two pistols and is ready to use them. But he means to bring his charges to safety as peaceably as possible. He collects the family, and some supplies, then the group slips away into the nighttime forest . . .
But here the storyline, which carries me away every time, has to pause, because it’s teetering on the edge of spoilers. Suffice to say there’s plenty of breathless excitement and wrenching personal drama yet to come in “Pathway,” before it reaches a shattering, unforgettable conclusion.
Besides, my point was that in this memorable drama, the life and spirit of Mark Sumner will rise again, stay with us for eleven nights on the Snow Camp stage, and then linger long after in vivid memory.
I wish Sumner was still here, though, so I could meet and interview him.
I’d want to explore one question in particular: how did he manage to write this story of interracial cooperation, without falling into the “white rescuer” narrative pattern so typical of many such stories by white writers?
In current argot, how did he manage to get so “woke” twenty-five years ago, at the age of seventy to boot?
I think there might be a clue to an answer in something Sumner said in 2008, at a conference on outdoor historical dramas. Those which had succeeded, he said, were those performed on “hallowed ground.” I
That is, in places where the drama recalls and re-enacts persons and events of great and continuing importance to the people there– and with wider resonance for theatregoers from afar.
Sumner specifically mentioned the Snow Camp theatre as one such location; and for me, the description fits. Quakers and their religious struggles, through wars and persecution, figure prominently in both the theatre’s plays; and Quakers have been settled in the Snow Camp area for 250 years.
Further, while slavery was not “special” to Snow Camp, it was a pillar of its white economy, and shaped the lives of generations of blacks brought in chains and kept in bondage there, as elsewhere across the South.
Plus Levi Coffin did live nearby and began his work of aiding blacks fleeing toward freedom in this region, seeding much of what became a nationwide escape support network. “Pathway” is today the only continuing public drama about what soon became the Underground Railroad.
And not least, though the forms of injustice have changed since the days, almost 180 years ago, that the play dramatizes, many of the issues that “Pathway” evokes are still very much with us. This play is historic, but it’s far from antiquated.
Beginning July 13, readers will be able to form their own sense of whether Mark’s Sumner’s creative spirit is still present in the Snow Camp ampitheatre. “Pathway to Freedom” opens then, for the 11 performances of its 23rd season.
The show schedule is here.
Advance tickets can be purchased online at Brownpapertickets.com.
Or Call 336-376-6948.
Group rates (for 15 or more) are attractively discounted.
[NOTE: the other Snow Camp outdoor play, “The Sword of Peace,” will be described in another post here in a few days: watch for it.]