"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Friday, April 20, 2007

TRUMPET of HISTORY: Norman Marshall, Portrayer of John Brown

A few years ago I was privileged to become acquainted with Mr. Norman Marshall, a veteran actor from stage and screen who has fairly well dedicated his life to portraying John Brown on stage in his one-man play, John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom. I have seen the play several times and have come to enjoy Mr. Marshall's friendship and camaraderie. He is an artist and intellectual and his passion for Brown is authentic and deeply-rooted. A descendant of slavemasters and klansmen, Norman is perhaps the quintessential "race traitor"--a so-called white southerner from Virginia (the state that murdered John Brown), armed-to-the-teeth with a larger-than-life wit and wisdom which he well uses in his own struggle against injustice, and in an unabashed defense of the most misunderstood and misrepresented human rights activist of the modern era.

Historians and biographers are often frustrated by artistic portrayals of their scholarly themes. Art is not bound to the rules of scholarship, to be sure, and the artist does not play the same role as the historian, although their work may overlap. Yet some art is better history than some history, especially when it comes to John Brown the abolitionist. Certainly Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter is not only a qualitatively better portrayal of Brown than is Bruce Olds' fictive monstrosity in Raising Holy Hell, but Cloudsplitter is probably a fairer portrayal than the historical renderings of historians like Robert Penn Warren and (the malignant) Otto Scott. The same salutation can be made of John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom, a play by Marshall and his colleague, George Wolf Reily. I would advise everyone to see this play because the spirit of the work is true to the story of John Brown the man who lived and died for human rights. Of course I would also advise people to engage the historical record too, which will only enhance an appreciation for the fine performance and dramatic rendering of the playwrights. Marshall makes no claim to being a historian, but he exhibits a deep respect for the record and does not abuse the story in the name of artistic freedom, as does Bruce Olds, who uses his fine talents to the detriment of truth.

Recently we have received an open letter from Mr. Marshall, most of which I have excerpted below. I am posting it here, along with the supportive remarks of our friendly colleague, David Reynolds, a prominent John Brown biographer in his own right. My hope is that you, the reader, will respond to the trumpet call of history. Use your influence to bring John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom to your club, house of worship, or campus. Like Old Brown himself, Marshall will travel wherever the call leads him and make magic in even the humblest of settings. He will also give just as true a performance for a small audience as for a large audience.

Rev. Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D.
John Brown Biographer and Scholar
If you are interested in learning more about Norman Marshall and John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom, see his website at: http://www.wbworks.com/johnbrown/index.html

[An Open Letter from Norman Marshall, Portrayer of John Brown the Abolitionist]

Dear Friends,
I have now been performing JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM for eleven years. John Brown has taken me to places and introduced me to people that a this old actor would have no hope of ever encountering. Every one of the hundreds of performances that I have given has been a pure joy for me. It is a privilege to have spent these years representing the spirit and body of John Brown.
When George Reily and I first decided to create this play, the assumption was that it would simply be another line on our resumes. The play would have its typically brief run and we would move on to other worlds to conquer. But along the way, the spirit of the Old Man asserted itself. His ideals and his example gripped my spirit so profoundly that I could not turn it loose. This play showed itself to be a complete marriage of the artistic, the spiritual and the political. There can be no higher calling than to dynamically present the essence of that which John Brown has to teach.
So, JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM has become a ministry for me . I will continue performing it as long as I have breath in my body and the strength to walk, crawl or be carried onto the stage. I will soon observe (certainly not celebrate) my sixty-eighth birthday. And even though I seem to be in perfect health and have the same vigor and strength that I had thirty years ago, I realize that the clock and the calendar will at some point, exact its tribute.
Until that time comes, I am eager to bring JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM to as many as humanly possible. In this regard, I ask your help.
For all the years that I have done this play, I have spent thousands of hours phoning and e-mailing potential bookers. The great, great majority of these have been cold calls. Evaluating this, I conclude that cold calling is almost a complete waste of effort. Ninety-nine point nine percent of cold calling has yielded nothing. In almost every case, bookings have resulted from folks who have seen the performance and recommended it to someone who was in a position to present it. Your response to this appeal can make a critical difference in getting this play to so many who can reap its benefits.
It can be done in a wide variety of venues. A theatre is not required. It has been performed in class rooms, lecture halls, churches, libraries, coffee houses, apartments, back yards and parks. I am particularly eager to do fund raisers for organizations that pursue justice for the poor and despised in the spirit of John Brown.
I ask all friends of John Brown to don their thinking caps at the jauntiest possible angle and think of people and circumstances that could facilitate presenting JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM.
We can lift up the memory and contribution of John Brown to a new exalted height that has heretofore been denied. We are living in a time when a new generation of historians is correcting the record concerning Brown. Let's all join that effort.
All the best.
Norman Marshall

P.S. Take a look at the JOHN BROWN/ JIM CROW: AMERICAN PARADOX page on the web site. It is a documentary on the genesis of the play, JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM.

"When performing, Norman Marshall is John Brown. He embodies all of the Puritan warrior’s characteristics: his passion, his toughness, his piety, and, above all, his uncompromising commitment to human rights. Marshall does not shrink from portraying Brown’s violence. To the contrary, he gives a chilling rendition of the Pottawatomie slayings. But he wisely places this violence in the context of pro-slavery atrocities and of John Brown’s accurate view of slavery as a state of war against an entire race. In depicting Brown, Marshall creates ongoing dialogues by skillfully impersonating a range of characters, from Frederick Douglass through the Virginia's governor Henry A. Wise, who talked with Brown. In doing so, Marshall conjures up John Brown’s whole world. Both on video and in person, Norman Marshall powerfully recreates the life and times of the man whose courageous war against slavery helped trigger the war that emancipated four million enslaved blacks."

--David S. Reynolds, author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

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