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"Ain't I A Woman" hands the spotlight to the Black women who shaped America

"Ain't I A Woman", which streams free courtesy of the Barrington Stage Company on Thursday, gives the unsung African-American educators, activists, and artists their moment at the center stage of history.

PITTSFIELD — When the Barrington Stage Company approached Shirley Edgerton last year with an idea for a festival celebrating Black voices, she knew what to do.

Edgerton revisited a piece she’d co-written more than a decade ago with Felicia Robertson that brought audiences face-to-face with the African American women who had shaped this country but were forgotten by its history books.

Inspired by abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, the duo named their play for the repeated words from Truth’s famed 1851 speech: “Ain’t I A Woman.”

Amarie Allen as Sojourner Truth with Company

Amarie Starr, playing abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth, confronts the "man over there" during a the production "Ain't I A Woman." Truth's words in her famous speech at the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention are Akron, Ohio is the namesake and guiding inspiration for "Ain't I A Woman." 

“I thought ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ would be very fitting because it’s intergenerational, multicultural and it tells history,” Edgerton said.

“As we moved along, that’s when we realize how timely this production was, in terms of the time period we’re living in right now.”

“It’s not just history, it’s what we’re experiencing currently,” she added.

The production, directed by Edgerton and Ted Thomas and narrated by Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, was to be the crowning event of Barrington Stage Company’s summer festival “Celebration of Black Voices.” But the persistence of the coronavirus forced the theater company to cancel the festival before “Ain’t I A Woman” returned to the stage.

Shirley Edgerton file photo

Women of Color Giving Circle founder Shirley Edgerton co-wrote "Ain't I A Woman" with Felicia Robinson in 2009 to give space to the impact African American women have had on history. 

Barrington Stage Community Engagement and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Sharron Frazier-McClain said the theater and cast did the only thing they could do: pivot.

Starting today, “Ain’t I A Woman” will be available for free streaming on the Barrington Stage Company’s YouTube channel. The 20-person cast returned to the theater’s Boyd-Quinson Stage to record the stories, songs and dances of African American women from the 1800s to the 21st century.

“We put our heads together because we weren’t going to let all of this hard work go to waste,” Frazier-McClain said before a special screening of the production Wednesday night.

Over the course of 50 minutes, the Pittsfield-based cast takes audiences back to the moment Truth addressed the Akron, Ohio Women’s Convention, to the moment Claudette Colvin decided to challenge the legality of segregated buses, to Nina Simone’s serenade of gifted Black youth, and to the stage to see Katherine Dunham take Caribbean dance-techniques to new heights.

Ensemble Dancing celebrating Katherine Dunham

"Ain't I A Woman" celebrates African American women across time and fields. Cast of the production perform a dance routine in honor of Katherine Dunham, the famed choreographer, dancer, educator and activist.

Edgerton said that she hopes that “those who don’t know this history or know the stories of some of these courageous women, that they will just sit back, and just be open to the learning.”

Edgerton, who is the cultural proficiency coach at Pittsfield Public Schools and the founder and director of Rites of Passage and Empowerment, said she was appreciative of the calling the cast felt to produce “Ain’t I A Woman” in this particular moment.

“Because given the unrest, and given the uprise in white supremacy and the discord between races,” Edgerton said she respected the actors who came out to play the women at the center of the play as well as the white cast members who took on the roles of people who actively participated in the oppression of Black people.

“The conversations and the community that developed amongst the cast was — it was just major, just very significant — and that was very, that was different from 2009,” Edgerton said.

“It’s not a blame game and it’s not a guilt game, but it’s about being aware and making some decisions about changing systems,” she said.

This story has been modified to correct the last name of Amarie Starr in a photo caption.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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