Old Bethel United Methodist Church is the third oldest religious structure still standing in Charleston. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, but by 2015 it was in serious need of repairs and financial growth. Congregation member Queen Atterberry thought she could help.
Atterberry, owner of Lady In White Productions, had written a play entitled, "When I First Remember," and knew it could be performed at Old Bethel, 222 Calhoun St. in downtown Charleston.
“I’m thinking, open up the church, tell a really good story, and keep a national monument alive,” she says. “We’ll employ local artists and artisans, and have some of that (tourism) cash come back into our community.”
The show has been a success ever since it premiered during Piccolo Spoleto almost three years ago. And at 7 p.m. Saturday, as part of the North Charleston Arts Festival, "When I First Remember" will be performed at The Pointe, 4870 Piedmont Ave., featuring new songs, new dances and additional live musicians.
Atterberry is Gullah-Geechee and felt compelled to tell a story about the history of her people.
“There’s a whole culture here that is no place else in the United States,” she says. “And it’s so closely related to our African roots, I just felt the need to tell the story of the Africans coming here.”
Early in the show, we are taken to the bottom of a slave ship and then to the ugliness of the auction house. But Atterberry balances these inevitably heavy moments with scenes of music and dance.
“There are a lot of different songs,” says Atterberry. “And we mix the songs. There are African-American songs, there are African songs. We try to keep it light but still get our point across.”
And it’s an interactive play. “We actually start the show with the actors in the audience,” says Atterberry. “And we ask their opinion on different things that we’re talking about. It’s an immersive experience.”
Every performance of "When I First Remember" has been produced and directed by Atterberry. That is, until now. For this production at The Pointe, Atterberry got out of the director’s chair. And the reason for that was pretty simple: “I was wearing too many hats,” says Atterberry. “So I needed to concentrate more on producing and getting the word out about us. I needed to free up some time. Plus, Samelia has a really great background in theater.”
New director Samelia Adams has worked in Philadelphia; Tallahassee, Fla.; and elsewhere before coming to Charleston. Now, she’s tasked with telling Atterberry’s touching tale about oppression and pain, but ultimately about inner strength and perseverance.
“We make the best of the situation that we’re in,” says Atterberry. “Even in the enslaved life, we made the best out of it. We would steal away and pray. We would steal away and tell stories. It’s part of our history, and it might not be a good part of our history, but it is a part of our history that we need to know, we need to keep in mind.
"African-Americans, especially these younger people, they need to know. Look at where we were 150 years ago and we still sustained ourselves and made it through. You can do the same.”