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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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Saturday, February 19, 2011

John Brown and Norman Marshall

When abolitionist John Brown led a group of fighters to storm the federal armory of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he single-handedly wrote a page of American history that is still discussed a century and a half later. Brown’s radical actions of Oct. 16, 1859, were intended as a well-armed insurrection to end all slavery. Instead, he was charged with treason while the nation was pitched into an even deeper slavery debate that a year later led to secession and eventually the Civil War.

Norman Thomas Marshall in “John Brown:
Trumpet of Freedom” (Photo by Robert Rattner)

“John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom” is a drama that explores, through historically accurate words from “the Old Man” himself, the inner life of a man who commits himself to the destruction of slavery. The thespian who recreates this history possess a unique story also. Norman Thomas Marshall was born in Richmond, Va., the son of a Klansman and grandson of a slave owner. His colorful life includes a stint as an offensive tackle for the Richmond Vikings, a civil rights activist, and a center of a 1960's Supreme Court case involving his expulsion from college for his political activism. Marshall moved to New York City in 1966, became deeply involved in the Off-off Broadway theater movement and spent 11 years as the artistic director of the No Smoking Playhouse. Over the years, Brown historical contributions have been weighed by his murderous and treasonous actions to his benevolent commitment to ending slavery.

Norman Thomas Marshall
“The sad fact is that the story of John Brown is not well-known,” explained Marshall. “The broader knowledge of the man has derived from such overstated, simplistic and ill-intentioned garbage as the Hollywood movie, 'The Santa Fe Trail' starring Ronald Reagan in which Brown was given a shameful portrayal by Raymond Massey as a pop-eyed, lunatic mass murderer. Discussions of Brown, including a somewhat recent PBS program about him, invariably deteriorate to a fixation on his pathology. It is inconceivable that a similar discussion of someone such as Robert E. Lee would focus on the degree of his insanity simply because he was complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Nor do we seem to care to discuss the insanity of the millions of impoverished, young white Confederate men who bled and died for a social and economic system that kept them in poverty.”

The play challenges the tradition of Brown’s role in history as that of a mentally unbalanced fanatic and argues that he is, in fact, a uniquely heroic figure.

“John Brown deserves an important place in American History,” notes Marshall. “To paraphrase William C. Davis of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the most widely published Civil War historian of our time, one cannot really understand American history without understanding the role played by a John Brown, that Brown is a crossroads through which passes all of American history. History aside, Brown is a character who is well-suited to the dramatic form. The story of his life naturally and easily fits the form of Greek tragedy. Theater audiences are inevitably deeply moved by the story of his dedication to the plight of his despised fellow creatures.

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