At Bryan Park last Friday I saw the premiere of Gabriel’s Story, a monologue written by Derome Scott-Smith for the 100th anniversary of Bryan Park.   The premise is that Gabriel is in his cell the night before he is to be executed at the Hanging Grounds in Shockoe Bottom, near Broad Street.  Gabriel’s life is a rich source of dramatic material–born into slavery in1776, just a year after Patrick Henry bellowed his most  famous words in St. John’s Church on Church Hill: “…Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”  It’s as if Henry wrote those words completely aware of chains but completely unaware of those chained all around him, dismissive of the plight of someone like Gabriel. That’s a pretty good juxtaposition–Gabriel and Patrick Henry, right there (and right here in Richmond), and the more you learn about Gabriel, the more fascinating it gets.

I wish I could report the piece worked as historical reenactment, but it did not. The setting, at dusk at Bryan Park, near squealing soccer players, bike-riding children, and oblivious others did not help set the scene.  I felt badly for the actor, who seemed to have trouble with his lines–also the wind bedeviled him as he tried to light candles frequently for symbolism.

Gabriel had more room to roam than I’d expect to see in a cell and it strained credulity to think a powerful figure such as Gabriel would be allowed the hefty club he occasionally picked up to mime field work or blacksmithing.

These are trifles though. Unfortunately, the monologue was too much of a monotone that in telling a valuable, underappreciated story had only a few memorable lines in 30 minutes. As dramatic as the elements of Gabriel’s life and death are, as many ties there are that bind his life to the contradiction at the heart of our nation’s beginnings, wordiness worked against the piece. Gabriel grew up enslaved in Henrico County, became a blacksmith, and hearing the stirrings of revolution in France and Haiti, planned a slave rebellion in1800 that included thousands, only to be foiled by a freak storm and snitches.

Think about how hard it is to get a thousand people to do something really hard. Even with the storm–I think of it as a Gaston-style storm from the descriptions of flooding–1000 people gathered in Henrico County, ready to storm the city, set fire to Rockett’s as a diversion, take over the armory, kidnap Governor Monroe, and raise a flag that was to say Death or Liberty. Sound familiar, no? And they were going to kill any whites along the way who weren’t abolitionists, French, Quaker, or Methodist to preserve the element of surprise.  Now that’s a plan.

More people know about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 than Gabriel’s, perhaps because Turner’s killed white people and of course, William Styron wrote the book, but Gabriel’s story can more than hold a candle to Nat Turner’s. I appreciate the attempt at dramatizing the story for a wider audience. Perhaps future performances will show improvement.

The monologue will be performed again Friday evenings in Bryan Park, Oct. 1st, 8th, and 15th at 6:30 p.m., so see for yourself what you think of the script and production. It’s an important story that more people in Richmond  and beyond should know.

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