Last November, a friend invited me to get together with her so that we could catch up on each other’s lives. I worked with Karyn Ostendorf and her husband, Dave, at a large St. Louis department store, and we have remained friends. When we met last November, Karyn gave me a theater program about a play that she had encouraged me to see. I was unable to do so prior to our November meeting but was intrigued, because my first bride’s family is from the town that is central to the play. So when she alerted me to another staging, I leapt at the opportunity to see her, her children, and the play written by her friend. We met at the Conner Prairie Welcome Center, and Karyn led me inside the theater, where she had saved me a seat in the second row. Her three children were arrayed to her left, but her oldest, Elaine, graciously gave up her seat so that I could sit beside her mother. The lights dimmed in the theater and the play began.
“More Light: Douglass Returns,” is playwright Celeste Williams’ re-imagining of historical events surrounding the return of abolitionist, orator and author Frederick Douglass’ to Indiana. The 25-year-old Douglass had been assaulted in Pendleton, Indiana, in 1843; his return to Noblesville, Indiana 37 years later is richly recreated, with the main staging taking place in a plushly appointed Pullman train car. Douglass recounts the travels that will bring him back to a different Indiana with one of the members of a large settlement of free blacks. Milton Roberts listens as Douglass tells his life story, and the scenes change in a clever way, with lights lowered in the background and Douglass and Roberts sitting still as young Douglass tells his story. On transparent panes on each side of the mains stage, silhouettes projected on the screen are voiced by cast members as scenes from Douglass’ early life are acted out. The two acts of the play begin and end in Noblesville, home to my first bride’s family (something I became aware of only a few years ago) and provide contrast and texture for the triumphant return of the noted abolitionist.
The play is a joint production of the Asante Children’s Theater and Conner Prairie. During a break between the two acts, attendees were able to view historical documents, pictures and maps of the Roberts Settlement, founded in 1835 by “free blacks of mixed racial heritage.” Their “economic, educational and religious aspirations” were pursued with the collaboration of white families in the area of Quaker and Wesleyan faiths, groups that leaned toward the abolitionists’ points of view.
During the intermission, I marveled again at the poise of the three Ostendorf children and the comfort with which I was able to interact with them. Elaine, on the cusp of 15, will be entering high school this fall, the first time in a school without her brothers, 13 year-old Nick and 9 year-old Rich. Nick towers over his older sister, and greeted me with a baritone voice that seemed too deep for his body. I sat next to Rich during the play, and he seemed as enthralled with the action as I was. When the play ended, Karyn introduced me to her friend, and I was honored to have my program autographed by the playwright, Celeste Williams.
Douglass’ mother, in the play, told her child to “shine his light.” My evening at Conner Prairie with the Ostendorf family was delightful and enlightening, and in the parking lot, under the lights, my farewell was hopeful and bright.
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