Local actors and playwrights Clarence Felder and Chris Weatherhead have seized on a historical figure from Charleston’s antebellum period, making John Laurens the protagonist of a new play called “Radical Son,” presented this week by Actors Theatre of South Carolina.
Laurens was the abolitionist son of rice planter and slaveholder Henry Laurens, a member of the Continental Congress and a signatory to the Articles of Confederation, who ran a large slave trading house with his partner Richard Oswald.
The play is “about John Laurens’ passionate fight to end tyranny and slavery in America 90 years before slavery ended,” Weatherhead said. “He was obsessed with the desire to end slavery before the end of the American Revolution. He could not imagine starting a new nation with slavery. He felt we would be the most horrific hypocrites if we did such a thing.”
The writers of “Radical Son” have spent many months researching history and constructing their play.
This year, they held two workshop readings, only to refine the script in their effort to incorporate important historical facts and episodes. It’s the first time Felder and Weatherhead have written together, she said.
She first became interested in John Laurens while doing research for the film “All for Liberty,” another piece set during the Revolutionary War period that Weatherhead directed.
She said she decided Laurens story, not as well-known as his father’s, deserved a theatrical treatment.
John Laurens was a passionate patriot, active in battles against the British and determined to change a socio-economic status quo that depended on slavery, which he deemed immoral and unsustainable. He advocated for the recruitment of slaves into the Continental Army and for their freedom after their service.
The young Laurens was made an aide-de-camp to General George Washington, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel. He fought in several important battles, helped secure support from France and was killed in August 1782 in the Battle of the Combahee River.
He was far from perfect, Weatherhead noted. He made mistakes in battle and left behind a pregnant wife. But imperfection makes for a more interesting theatrical hero.
“But as heroes go, this kid deserves some credit for throwing his body on the machinery (of slavery) 90 years before it stopped here,” Weatherhead said.
John Laurens was an especially dedicated soldier and patriot.
“If you believe in something that is right, you have to be willing to die for it,” she said. “There are certain things in life that are worth dying for.”
After his son’s death, Henry Laurens freed his slaves and became something of a recluse, Weatherhead said.
And now Laurens’ story will be presented on the stage of Threshold Repertory Theatre starting Friday. (A preview is scheduled for Thursday.) “It’s a little over an hour, but it goes like a freight train,” Weatherhead said.
The cast includes Felder as Henry Laurens; Robbin Knight as John Lauren; Adam Miles as Thomas Day, Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Evan Edwards; Elizabeth Leigh Watson as Elizabeth Futterel; and Kelvin Curtis as Phillip Rivers.
“Radical Son” runs Thursday-Oct. 17 at Threshold Repertory Theatre downtown.
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