Summer Writing Resident Alli Hartley-Kong: Reflections on a Week Writing & Not Writing

Alli Hartley-Kong is the fifth writer of the Summer 2022 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


Read on for a peek into Alli's experience below. You can also read more about Alli and her fellow residents (past and current) here.

 


In my life outside of writing and staging plays, I’m a public historian, working in the same field as my colleagues at Woodlawn & the Pope-Leighey House. So when I told my coworkers at my “day job” I was taking a week’s leave to spend it at another site, they were skeptical of my “bus driver’s holiday.” The residency couldn’t have happened at a better—or worse—time. I’ve been trying to start a new full-length play this summer, but nothing’s stuck. I’ve also been extremely burnt out, driving up the east coast for productions in New Jersey this summer, in between work deadlines. Like my coworkers, I myself was skeptical approaching Woodlawn on Monday morning—could I really turn off my “work brain” while at a historic site?


I didn’t write a single page that first day. I shared that my goal was to embrace not having a goal—although, to be honest, because of my interest in the 1930s and 1940s, I thought coming into this I might write an audio play that could be listened to inside the Pope-Leighey House. I did a lot of things on Monday that did not look like writing. I took tours of the houses. I listened to nature. I walked the grounds. I read through the site’s interpretive plans.



As I drove home Monday with a stop on the Potomac, I panicked that I had wasted the day. But so many things that don’t look like writing actually are. As I went to sleep on Monday night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Quaker and Baptist families who moved here in the 1840s to show their slaveholding neighbors a plantation staffed with free labor was possible. During orientation in June, executive director Shawn Halifax had shared that for a long time in Woodlawn’s institutional history before he came onsite, the messaging followed roughly “we had slavery—but then we had Quakers—so that’s absolved.” I’m not interested in writing absolution for slavery, but I am interested in the limitations of the white owners’ views on race.


Some of the archival records


I spent a lot of time this week “visiting” with the Mason family, both through their archival records, a book of family lore, and walks to the cemeteries onsite. The Masons were “Baptist abolitionists” aligned with the Quakers who lived here. Abolition is not anti-racism though, as their story so clearly tells. For example, I read an 1901 Washington Post article about Otis Mason, who later became an ethnographic curator at the Smithsonian. I was horrified to learn that he credited his interest in folklore in listening to “slave tales”. Whose stories was he telling? With what spin? How had he profited from stories were not his?


I was very conscious during my time here, that I would not do the same.


Rachel Mason's grave


Because of my own lived experiences and identity, I composed a few pages this week from the perspective of Rachel Mason. My goal was that the works could connect to modern audiences around the theme of the tragedy of living through historical events (who hasn’t thought at least once in the past three years, “I can’t believe we are living this?”) Plays are always in draft until they are workshopped with actors, directors and audiences. These collaborators bring in their own perspectives and lived experiences. I am working up a plan to complete these works, and to bring in other artists to fully realize these in the next few months.


I admit I was not as disciplined a writer as I could have been, but I’m learning to embrace the process. A few weeks ago, an idea popped into my head for a play loosely inspired by my grandparents, but I told myself to wait until after my residency. Maybe it was that the refrigerator in the Pope-Leighey House was the same exact refrigerator my grandparents had, but somehow I ended this week with twenty new pages of that play and only about ten pages related to Woodlawn. Oops. I also wrote a random ten-minute play on Thursday very loosely inspired by Oscar Underwood, but we will see if that goes anywhere.



I’m so glad I did this. What a joy and privilege each morning to awake and do the work I love—both as a historian and a playwright. Like classic plays that get treatments with new directors and actors, the way we perceive historic events changes with new perspectives and newly-discovered documents. I hope my work will participate in this everchanging conversation about this site.



Excerpt:


I spent a day at Woodlawn “visiting” with the Mason family history. I learned the men in the family were one of few in Fairfax County who voted that Virginia should stay in the union at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861, votes were counted out loud. It was no guarantee that they would return home that evening—and yet they voted against secession. I wonder what the women—who could not vote—thought of that all. In the end, their votes were removed from the county poll books, in a feign of unanimity for secession. I wonder if the men ever knew that. To me, their votes still “count”. It still matters. As I visited the family in the Woodlawn Baptist graveyard, I thought of them and this vote. This monologue came to me in Rachel’s voice. It’s part of a larger piece I am still working on about the family.


RACHEL:

Did you take time yet today, to walk through a cemetery? I don’t know why—even these days—I love walking through cemeteries. When our Quaker friends take us to Alexandria, I always ask to visit the cemetery, on Queen Street, when I have time….Listen to me. We all have time. Every day we make choices on how to spend it. If you have time, take it to visit. You never know what you will encounter.

It is unbelievable, what has happened to us the last two years. Do you ever stop and think: if it wasn’t happening to us, I wouldn’t believe it could happen at all. It’s rather remarkable, how quickly we adjusted to living in a state of war. Sometimes, I don’t even hear the sounds of war. I am so used to cannons that it fades into the sounds of the birds, the crickets. I don’t think nature is quiet or loud. I think it depends on how intensely you listen.

Do you remember my husband’s vote that Virginia should stay union? He placed so much importance on it. We came here because we believed in something. We had to believe in it—we had to believe, that despite what they showed us outright, there was some humanity in our neighbors. If we hadn’t, how could we have lasted here ten years?

My husband never told me—in this wretched county’s poll books, they scratched out the names of all the men who had voted like he had. “By the desire of the voters of rejection, their votes have been changed”. They scratched out his name and they scratched out his vote.

Our neighbors are Quakers, and we are abolitionists, but I cannot say we are pacifists. I don’t know what the answers are. Peace, then what about the enslaved? War, what about my sons? I remember when my husband said he was not President, nor God. I wish it were so. But even if he was, I don’t think either have any answers. Some Baptists believe in original sin. We do not—at least in the religious sense. But when I think of how my country was born half-slave, half-free…? Well, is that not original sin?

I guess you can’t not think of death when walking through a graveyard. But when I walk through the graveyard, I think of my own legacy. I am less concerned with my personal impact on the world, but rather what we leave behind, as Virginians.

Maybe some day, someone will look at my grave. They will see the years—my birth, my death. I wonder if they will think… that was before my mother was born. That was before my grandmother was born. I don’t know when I will die, of course. But I can’t help think someone will look at a grave that has my name and say—that was so long ago. I wonder if we will still be a country then.

 

Alli Hartley-Kong is a playwright, poet, and a public historian currently based out of the DC metro area, though originally from New Jersey. Her academic work focused on women's history, and she infuses that into her writing. Her full-length play People Should Talk About What's Real was performed by Chester Theatre Group in NJ, and she has had one-acts and monologues performed by Sundog Theatre, Irvington Theatre, Chatham Community Players, Carlow Little Theatre, The Open Eye Theatre, and much more. In January, she placed in third in the A is For competition, a playwriting competition about reproductive rights. Past commissions include Single Carrot Theatre (The Covid Monologues Project) and Central Square Theatre (the Women in Science festival, where she wrote a play about endometriosis research). In her previous job, she staged site-specific theatre in a historic house. She will spend her residency this summer working on a piece about the history of birth control during the periods of interpretation.