Raise Them Up Higher

Whether you’ve heard of Parchman Farm or not, its impact on American culture has been felt for a long time.

Officially the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman was founded in 1901 on the grounds of the former Parchman Plantation. Still in operation today, Parchman has a notorious reputation. In his 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates quoted historian David Oshinsky: “Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality … the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War.”

In addition to appearing in the works of August Wilson and Willliam Faulkner, the prison has inspired blues songs, including Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” and Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “New Parchman.” Folklorists Alan and John Lomax visited the prison numerous times to record work songs, field hollers and blues, including the version of “Po’ Lazarus” that’s on the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Parchman is also the source of the work song “Berta, Berta,” which tells the tale of an imprisoned man who doesn’t want his partner to wait for his release to move on with her life. A fictionalized backstory for the song is envisioned in Angelica Chéri’s play of the same name, which opens this week at the New Theatre at Firehouse.

“The songs that came out of that time period, a lot of them were love songs, and a yearning for the loves that these men had lost because of the circumstances of their imprisonment,” explains Tawnya “Dr. T” Pettiford-Wates, the show’s director and a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of graduate pedagogy in acting and directing.

The play takes place in Mississippi, 1923. Berta is a widow, and estranged from Leroy, her long-lost lover. Leroy was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and spent 18 months at Parchman. As no one knew where Leroy was, Berta ended up marrying another man. Now, for one night, Berta and Leroy reconnect.

“It is a story about the power and resilience of true love,” says Pettiford-Wates. “It is fully written in what we call the Black aesthetic, which is many levels of reality, surrealism, poetry, music.”

click to enlarge

Carol Lewis and Solomon in Angelica Chéri’s play

  • Scott Elmquist

  • Carol Lewis and Solomon in Angelica Chéri’s play “Berta, Berta,” which is being directed by Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates.

Leroy’s experience with Parchman connects us to the present, where police have qualified immunity “to do whatever they want to the brown and Black body in this country” without repercussions, Pettiford-Wates says.

“At that time, they used Black men for labor, which is still the case in the prison-industrial complex,” she says, referencing a term used to describe how privately run prisons and related companies have gained profit and political influence from the expansion of the American inmate population. “It ties us to contemporary times: the Black experience with the criminal-justice system in this country and the history of policing in America, that it started with slave patrols. It has never really changed.”

Katrinah Carol Lewis and Jerold E. Solomon star in the show. The longtime Richmond performers say they’ve known each other for so long on both a personal and professional level that they’ve developed a “shorthand” when acting together.

Of his character, Solomon says Leroy “wants to make right with Berta. Things have never been stated plainly, and he’s trying to make things right before he’s able to live out the rest of his life.”

Solomon says the play is unique in its embrace of the mystical.

“There’s a lot of supernatural elements that are rooted in southern African American culture,” Solomon says. “Some of those elements play a huge part in the goings on of the evening.”

Lewis says the play is “full of love and loss and mysticism and magic and vulnerability.” According to her, Berta has focused her life solely on running her farm since her husband died.

“She’s full of contradictions,” Lewis says. “She’s a vulnerable woman, but she’s also very strong. She’s a survivor, but she has a lot of scars. She’s very faithful in a traditional sort of Southern, Christian AME sense, but she also has a lot of doubts. She’s loving, but she will also cut you if you cross her.”

Lewis says Leroy is “a storm in the middle of a dream. He is a full steam ahead man, a big man, big personality, big feelings and big love. You get to see a lot of shades in him in the play, from some really intense violence that comes up in this man, and also a tenderness and sensuality and love and humor.”

In its mystical retelling of a long-lost relationship, “Berta, Berta” shouldn’t be missed, Solomon says.

“It’s going to be a very raw exploration of missed chances or missed opportunities in relationships, of rekindling some feelings and fixing things that have been thought to be irreparably broken,” Solomon says. “It’s going to be a spiritual rollercoaster.”

“Berta, Berta” plays Sept. 27-Oct. 15 at the New Theatre at Firehouse, 1609 West Broad St. For more information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call (804) 355-2001.

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