“Rachel” playwright Angelina Weld Grimké was a pioneering poet and essayist, a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance who has been largely written out of history.

by Quintessence staff

When the production of “Rachel” opened in New York on April 25, 1917, it made history as the first play written by an African-American author with an all-black cast to be performed before an integrated audience. Inside the program for the premiere of “Rachel” was written: “This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” The play was produced by the NAACP as a response to the flamboyantly racist 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

Over a century later, a direct parallel can be drawn from the lynching and institutionalized discrimination of the early 20th century to the systemic racism, killing and mass incarceration of the African American community in the early 21st century and the effect it has on the everyday lives of families, making exigent the need for understanding, sharing and awareness.

Quintessence Theatre Group at 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy is continuing its 10th anniversary season with the Philadelphia premiere of Angelina Weld Grimké’s 1916 Classic, “Rachel,” which is currently set to run Jan. 29 to Feb. 16. With deep family ties to Philadelphia’s early abolitionist and women’s rights movements, Angelina Weld Grimké was a pioneering poet and essayist, a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance who has been largely written out of history.

The NAACP chose to produce Grimké’s work because of her extraordinary ability to portray the African-American experience through poetry and prose. Grimké’s work has been compared to that of Ibsen and Chekhov but was unproduced for nearly a century. Quintessence is thrilled to be staging the Philadelphia premiere of this great American classic.

In the play, An African-American family at the turn of the 20th century strives to find life, liberty and happiness in a Northern city. Haunted by her family’s Southern past, Rachel, an ambitious high school graduate, struggles to find a vocation, love and hope in the face of systemic racism, ultimately choosing to reject marriage and motherhood.

Philadelphia-based theater artist Alexandra Espinoza will be directing the production.

“’Rachel’ is a play that is both specific to its time and chillingly prescient for our current moment,” said Espinoza. “Angelina Weld Grimké was a black, queer woman

who wrote this play in 1915 as a direct repudiation of the white supremacist propaganda film, ‘Birth of a Nation.’

“Her work is bursting at the seams of realism in that the container of the play is stylistically straightforward, but its underbelly is an aggressively subversive examination of what it means to be black, to be a child, to be a woman, to be a man, to be and stay alive in America,”

Angelina Weld Grimké was the great niece of the Grimké sisters, Angelina Grimké Weld (after whom she is named) and Sarah Moore Grimké. The Grimké sisters were ardent abolitionists and involved in the early women’s rights’ movement. They were the first female agents of William Lloyd Garrison’s American Antislavery Society. On May 17, 1838, Grimké Weld spoke at the new Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. An angry mob gathered outside throwing bricks and making threats while she spoke, but she continued and incorporated these incidents into her speech.

She finished her speech, and the racially diverse group left the meeting arm in arm. Later that evening, the building was burned to the ground. Grimké Weld was the final speaker in the building. Sarah Moore Grimké took in her late brother’s three illegitimate mixed-race sons by his personal slave. Welcoming them into the family, Sarah worked to provide funds to educate Archibald Grimké and Francis James Grimké, who went on to successful careers, and were leaders in the African-American community. Archibald Grimké , Angelina Weld Grimke’s father, was the second African American to graduate from Harvard Law School.

The cast of “Rachel” includes Barrymore Award-Winner Jessica Johnson as Rachel Loving, Zuhairah McGill as the matriarch of the Loving family and Travoye Joyner as Rachel’s brother, Tom. Walter Deshields makes his Quintessence debut as John Strong, and Niya Colbert completes the ensemble. Celebrating its 10th season, Quintessence’s home is the historic Sedgwick Theater, an Art Deco movie palace designed in 1928 by William Lee.

For ticket information, visit QTGrep.org or call 215.987.4450, Ext. 1. The first preview of “Rachel” on Jan. 29 is a Pay What You Can performance (PWYC).

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