Summer Writing Resident Chelsea Harrison: Living Landscapes
Chelsea Harrison is the third writer of the Summer 2021 cohort to spend her 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 Chelsea's experience below. You can also read more about Chelsea and her fellow residents (past and current) here.
I am sitting in the Underwood room, one of the few air conditioned rooms in this 19th century house. I am sitting and staring at a painting. Edward Savage’s “The Washington Family.” As if on a stage, a thick red curtain is pulled aside and we can see the nation’s “first family”, George and Martha Washington and their grandchildren sitting and standing around a table overlooking the Potomac River. They are surrounded by globes and circumferences and appear to be reading maps, perhaps charting the course for this new nation they were building. In the corner, almost blending into the theatrical curtain, is a Black man. A servant, holding a tray and looking at the “first family” nation-build. Who is this man? Why was he included in this scene? Why have I never seen images of George Washington with the human beings he owned? I stared at that painting for a long time, until a new play was born in my imagination.
I came to Woodlawn to find myself.
I came to hear the voices of my ancestors.
I came to venture into the belly of the beast and find them there-
Patiently waiting to speak with me.
They would lovingly tutor me in the ways to cultivate self-liberation at all times, in all conditions.
I came to Woodlawn with lists of questions, stacks of books, playlists, a schedule, a change of clothes, my mother’s genealogy, and a plan. I came to find myself and I found so much more.
Perhaps I should share a little of who I am. I am a theater-maker. I am infinitely engaged with the practice of storytelling. I am obsessed with understanding why people do the things they do. I am an American Black cisgender woman who is learning I have Indigenous/ First Nations blood in my family. I am learning about my family’s genealogy- piecing it together bit by bit. I am an actor and a dancer. I am always trying to figure out how to express the depth of what I’m currently puzzling. With Woodlawn, I was puzzling over the idea of how one human being could own another and the legacy of that belief. As a playwright, I needed to be in conversation with history in order to understand. Like Edana (Dana) Franklin in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, I had to meet my ancestors (Black, white, and Indigenous) to find my way through today.
I am calling on my benevolent ancestors,
Show me what this place meant to you,
Show me the places of pain and sorrow,
Show me where you found the will to survive,
Show me where the love resided,
Show me what you got you through because I am afraid of what I see in this country and you must know what comes next.
You must know what comes next because you saw what came first.
The root of the rot.
The following scenes and stage directions are from a play I’m writing that doesn’t exist yet. I’ve got sketches and moments in mind. I am calling them “Woodlawn Vignettes.”
Character List (so far):
William Lee- valet
Free Black Girl - resident of Free Town
George Washington and his family sit for their family portrait. Maps are laid on the table, everyone is frozen in place, trying not to move. It is almost convincing that the living people are actually statues. Until the servant, William Lee, dressed in a fancy vest, holding a tray, sneezes.
Sometimes the dust from these curtains makes me sneeze!
At least the sneeze is something to do, more than this.
(Gesturing to George Washington and his family frozen in time)
Serving him during the Revolutionary War was easier than this stuff!
He knows standing like this is bad for my knees!
“It’ll be fun”, he said.
“Pose for a portrait and go down in history forever,” he said.
Go down in history forever?
Well, since you’re already listening,
Let me tell you a story.
I am what they call mulatto-
The Gen’ral even used it call me “Mulatto Will.”
I was born to a slave woman and a white man
Which made me a slave since the day I was born.
The Gen’ral bought me for about 72 dollars and I been by his side ever since…
But that’s not the story I wanted to tell you.
You probably know that story real good.
The story I want to tell is about my great great great great great grandmother.
She was a princess.
Princess of the First Nations of this here land.
She was descended from a long line of Manahoac chiefs…
The scene is set in a plantation manor two hours before dinner will be served.
We get to see the grand spectacle of dinner time at the Woodlawn Plantation Mansion!
Mistress Nelly rushes about, overseeing the prep of the food, the folding and laying of the linens, the polishing of the silverware, and the meticulous organization of the tea service set.
The servants engage in a magnificent choreography of lifting, walking, folding, cooking, cutting, cleaning, straightening, dusting, sweeping, setting the table, setting the sideboard.
You see, negroes, y’all have a greater number of glands under the skin, so you can tend to have an offensive smell to you. To counterbalance this unfortunate side effect, I have included in my housekeeping book a recipe for Chloride of Soda. This concoction is for “relieving persons affected by bad air from offensive servers & a napkin moistend’d with Chloride of Soda placed under the nostrils and repeated restored several from apparent death…”
Mistress Nelly oversees the preparation of a homemade mixture to stop the servants from ‘smelling” while they serve. Nelly rushes off to her room to dress as the servants put final touches on the dining room. Nelly returns, dressed.
Everyone is in costume.
The bell chimes.
There is absolute stillness in the room.
Nelly gives a signal.
The door opens and guests enter.
The play begins.
This scene is set in the garden of a Free Black family, residing in Free Town. Free Town was a free Black community in Fairfax County, Virginia on the land of what used to be the Woodlawn plantation. A young free Black girl, dressed crisply in white, stands amidst sunflowers with a book in her hand.
Free Black Girl
I started writing poetry cuz’ it makes me feel good. Sometimes, when I’m standing here in the garden, I get the calling to versify. I wanna share some of my verses with you. This is a rough draft, so be nice!
Free Town of free Blacks
No longer enslaved, they soar.
Can you believe it?
Forty eight free Black households
On a plantation.
Were forward thinking farmers
They knew this land well.
The true first families here.
The Saponis too!
Free Town, my Free Town.
Formerly enslaved live free.
I know dreams come true.
I am ten years old.
I come from a line of chiefs.
I was always free.
End of Play
As a contemporary theater-maker, I live with the Shakespearean wisdom that “all the world’s a stage”! Puzzling on the constant performance of social status that consumed the antebellum South, I can safely say all the plantations’ a stage! Everyone, from the first president of the country to the mistress to the enslaved to the overseer is playing a role in this production of a lifetime called AMERICA.
I imagine “masters” looking out over the fields, fancying themselves as gods, as my ancestors were expected to happily play the scenery. Barely seen and never heard- but never too far away, in case they are needed. A living landscape of “essential workers”. All the plantations’ a stage, and all the people are pretending! The truth is that bondage is an unnatural state. No one wants to be enslaved and no one can easily bear the enslavement of another without becoming enslaved to something much darker. The truth is that love is what freed my ancestors. Love for themselves and each other gifted them the strength to do what had to be done so that I could be born. Love of that magnitude is what struck me while I sat in silence, in tears, at Woodlawn.
I came to Woodlawn
To find myself
And I found so much more.
Citation of Works and Works that inspired my thinking
Angela D Mack; Stephen G. Hoffius; University of Virginia Art Museum; Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, S.C.); Morris Museum of Art (Augusta, GA); Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art. Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press. 2008.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Geraghty, Mary. “Domestic Management of Woodlawn Plantation: Eleanor Parke
Custis Lewis and Her Slaves” Thesis. College of William & Mary - Arts & Sciences. 199
Schmidt, Patricia Brady. Nelly Custis Lewis's Housekeeping Book, 111. New Orleans:
The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1982
Walker, Kara Elizabeth, Philippe Vergne, Sander L. Gilman, and Emmet Byrne. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. 2007.
ChelseaDee Harrison is a multi-hyphenate, interdisciplinary creator, artivist, and arts educator. Specializing in theater-making, she performs, teaches, curates, co-facilitates, develops curriculum, directs, and produces arts events. Her focus is creating new works of theater that highlight history and challenge dominant narratives while ensuring art is a tool in the hands of the people. Most recently, her work includes being the executive producer and host of the podcast, Vanguard of the Viragoes and the co-creator of the digital healing experience, The Ritual of Repair. You can follow her on IG @thatuppitygirl or at her website or at linktr.ee/ChelseaDee