Notes from the Director
“The way a nation treats its poor and unfortunate citizens, most especially its children, is the mark of how civilized it truly is.” —Gaddarn, Coram Boy
I have found, over time, that I can never really know what I will uncover in my research and explorations in preparation for a play. I know I can count on historical background, accounts of manners and social form, and the visual record of the time, but it is in the tangents, the unexpected links to aspects of our culture or history, that the surprises lie. So it has been with my personal journey with Coram Boy, a play that stirred me with its epic romantic tale, the music, the intrigue of its storytelling, and the interplay between history and fiction. Though I am no longer surprised at what I might find in my research, I have to admit that I have been stunned by what has been uncovered with Coram Boy. If we make art in order to better understand the world we inhabit and to offer others a different way of perceiving the world, then this play is perhaps the best example I have encountered in many years.
Growing up in the 1960s, I believed that children being born out of wedlock were a “modern problem” and that slavery was an embarrassing aspect of our history that was eradicated with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Well, I now accept that those unwanted babies have been coming for centuries and that slavery is alive in every country on this fair planet. Not only that: its long arm reaches right into my home, my workplace, and my conscience. Defined as “not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely... [they] become slaves, not through ownership, but through the final authority of violence” and by being sold by parents or relatives in many countries or by entering into agreements that they failed to understand. Author Kevin Bales wrote in his book Disposable People that slavery will persist because “the law can do little against the combined strength of sexist culture, rationalizing religion, amoral exploitative economy, and corrupt government.”
I can no longer in good conscience have a Coke. I find myself reading labels of food items, not for calorie or protein content, but for the names of the companies that produced the items. A simple bite of chocolate is no longer as simple as a trip to the vending machine as all the chocolate products there are connected to the use of child slave labor. (Chocolate production in Africa is one of the hotbeds.) I discover that stores I enjoy shopping in, clothing I wear, and nonfood products I use, as well as ubiquitous items such as the iPhone and iPod all bear the dark mark of human slave labor. I find myself embarrassed that the official inductees of the International Labor Rights Forum’s 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame include Abercrombie and Fitch, Hanes, Ikea, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, Pier 1 Imports, and Wal-Mart, among others. I am confused by language I once trusted: “Fair trade” does not always mean what you thought it might mean since there are few regulations concerning the use of that term. “Organic” does not mean “fair trade” and vice versa. And how does all this relate to unwanted pregnancies and children or theatre? It’s all there in our story, comfortably set in a century much earlier than our own, inviting us to look around and see if things are really as they seem, or are we simply choosing to not see?
Fear not, in the manner of all good, romantic tales, these darks aspects are deftly woven into a compelling tale, replete with a happy ending. Now I will get back to the task I love best: working with actors and designers to try and make a production so compelling that you cannot help but think about it tomorrow and beyond. Enjoy!
Norm Johnson, Director