Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Written by Phillis
Phillis Wheatley was America's first published Black poet and her work was admired by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and King George III, among countless others. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was kidnapped into slavery and taken to North America at the age of seven or eight, where she was bought by the Wheatley family of Boston. Written by Phillis begins with Wheatley and the family that enslaved her preparing to travel to London to get her first volume of poetry published. The play covers her time in London, her subsequent literary success, and her life as a free woman, wife, and mother.
Playwrights Paul Oakley Stovall and Marilyn Campbell-Lowe struggle a bit with the opening of Written by Phillis, using a graduate student writing a paper to introduce Wheatley as a historical figure and set up some of the themes that run through the play. The device is painfully awkward, but after the first five minutes the play follows a straightforward, fast-paced and captivating narrative. Stovall and Campbell-Lowe bring Wheatley to vivid life in a way that is shockingly relatable, considering most of us could never know the depth of her suffering as a kidnapped and enslaved young person or the heights of her inimitable genius. Wheatley's life and work are always front and center even as the play wrestles with larger issues of personal autonomy, slavery, and racism in historical writing.
Asia Rogers portrays Wheatley as a young woman whose quietly optimistic outlook on life conceals a breadth and depth of intelligence too staggering to fully comprehend. The authenticity Rogers brings to the various aspects of Wheatley's personality and experiences is simply phenomenal. Phillip Brown is excellent as both as the talented Ignatius Sancho and the dignified Scipio Moorhead. Carolyn Nelson and Joshua Kachnycz play Susanne and Nathaniel Wheatley with an unconscious and unconscionable sense of entitlement. It is an attitude that is both abhorrent and undeniably familiar.
The creative team behind Written by Phillis has created a simple inviting space that lets the cast and story shine. Costume designer Anna Sorrentino's pieces are beautifully crafted and evoke the period in a way that feels natural. Brian Sidney Bembridge's set design is warm with clean lines. Bruce takes advantage of the design by including actors who are not in the featured scene seated around the raised in-the-round stage.
Written by Phillis was conceived and created as part of Quintessence's collaboration with Chicago's New Classics Collective. I sincerely hope it is just the first of many such collaboration. I highly recommend checking it out while you still can. This new biographical dramatization puts Wheatley's poetry front and center, reconsiders her important role in America's founding and ideals, and explores her obscure life and legacy, which inspired an African-American literary tradition that has lasted over two and a half centuries.
Written by Phillis runs through June 4, 2023, at the Quintessence Theatre Group, 7135 Germantown Ave, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit www.QTGrep.org or call 215-987-4450.