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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, November 01, 2019

Magpie's Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino Reprise "Sword of the Spirit" at Charles Town

Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino
portray John and Mary Brown in
"Sword of the Spirit" (Magpie Music website)
On Saturday, November 2, 2019, at 7:30 p.m., the Old Opera House in Charles Town, West Virginia, presents “Sword of the Spirit,” a one-act play based on the letters of John and Mary Brown. The play was written by husband-wife team, Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, known also as the musical duo, Magpie.  The play, which was also written by Richard Henzel, is seventy-minute-long and one act, features Artzner and Leonino in full costume and character as the Browns.  

The play is set in late November, 1859, when John Brown is facing execution and his wife is staying at the home of abolitionist Lucretia Mott in the Philadelphia area. "Sword of the Spirit" thus explores  the last days of John Brown before his execution on December 2, 1859 during which he had received many visitors, given interviews and composed over one hundred letters to acquaintances, friends, and members of his family, including his wife Mary. In the play, the audience learns about Brown's  story, his beliefs, and what he believes to be his God-given mission to destroy the evil of slavery. On the same stage, the audience sees his soon to be widowed wife Mary writing to him and speaking to the audience about her life with the famed abolitionist.

According to Tricia Lynn Strader of the Martinsburg [West Va.] Journal:
Artzner and Leonino have played music in the area before. They’ve been internationally renowned folk musicians for 46 years. Artzner said their work in music and cultural history is one of their most ardent and passionate interests. They have researched the stories of these figures in American History for three years, culminating in this work of theatre. They said their portrayals of the Browns give audiences an opportunity to see them from a new perspective, not as mythical, fanatical icons, but as human beings, people with human feelings, human strengths and weaknesses.
In an interview with Artzner, the musician and actor stated that they had presented the play many times at Harpers Ferry, including performances of their song cycle, which bears the same title the play, "Sword of the Spirit." The song cycle presents other stories of Brown’s family, friends and associates. However, the only music in the play takes place Artzner's John Brown and Leonino's Mary Brown sing hymns without accompaniment.  “We decided to keep the musical telling of the story separate from the stage play," Artzner explained. "There are dialogue segments based on the letters the Brown’s exchanged over the years, but most of the rest is based on two historical premises." One of these segments has Brown speaking to the audience as if they were reporters, something that was included in the play because of the extensive number of interviews Brown actually gave to journalists and visitors during his last days in Charles Town (then, Charlestown) jail. 
Artzner in Harper's Ferry (Greg Artzner photo)

Artzner told his interviewer how he and Leonino actually grew up and met in the city of Kent, in northeastern Ohio, “John Brown Country.” Interestingly, the first place they lived together was on River Street, right across from the site of the old Haymaker House, which Brown rented for his family's residence in the 1830s, and where Brown and his family made a vow to oppose slavery.
Preparation for the writing of the play took four years of reading, studying, and doing primary source research. This took place before internet access was available, and their research entailed extensive travel to major historic centers and research collections.  “In those days none of what we needed was available on the internet, so we traveled to Harpers Ferry National Park’s research library, the Library of Congress in D.C., Columbia University in New York city, and the Hudson, Ohio library. We corresponded with the historical associations in West Virginia, Ohio and Kansas. "We were principally looking for Mary’s letters and other documents pertaining to her, her relationship to her husband, and her role in the story," Artzner said. "We found quite a few of her letters, more than any single archive held. We transcribed them and donated our transcribed collection to Harpers Ferry.”

"Sword of the Spirit"
Presented on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at the Old Opera House, 204 N. George Street, Charles Town
Information & tickets: tickets $15. Call 725-4420 or www.oldoperahouse.org