by Frank Burd
Beacon Theatre Productions is presenting the world premiere of a play about the legendary women’s rights and anti-slavery activist, Lucretia Mott. In the play by Philadelphia playwright Shelli Pentimall Bookler, we get to know Mott through her interactions with her husband and another human rights activist she meets at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass was a brilliant writer and orator, and though the play “Under the Bonnet,” focuses primarily on Mott, I had the privilege during this Black History Month of interviewing the actor portraying Douglass, Eric Carter, an amazing man himself.
Raised in North Philadelphia, where he still lives, Carter, 41, is the single father of two teenage girls. He balances his parenting and extensive acting career with a position at Devereaux Behavioral Health. As a support teacher there, he helps neglected and troubled kids. But he still finds the time to pursue his passion, acting.
After attending CAPA (Creative and Performing Art High School in center city) and a brief stint in college, he left to act full-time. He’s performed with Azuka Theater, Theater in the X, South Camden Theater and The Drama Group in Germantown, among others. He portrayed Martin Luther King for Erie Theater Company.
When I asked him what it was like to play Dr. King, he said he didn’t try to emulate the civil rights giant and make him a larger-than-life figure, but rather represented him as a man, with faults, like any other man. The two-person play takes place on the day before the assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, as he tries to develop a speech to support the sanitation workers — that powerful speech which included the memorable line, “I have been to the mountaintop.”
Carter loves to get inside a character, but acting is more than knowing, he says. After reading a script four or five times, he tries to find the rhythm of the character to bring the audience on a journey as the conflict is revealed. And when he is successful, he will relate to the others on stage to connect even more meaningfully to that character.
The hardest role he’s undertaken was in a play that is over 50 years old, “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward. In a fictional southern town, all the black people disappear one day. It shows the reaction of the whites. Laced with satire, it is written to be performed by the blacks in whiteface. Carter had trouble adjusting to the concept as it seemed to be a reverse of the stereotypical roles confronting African-Americans for centuries. But he was pleased when it was well received by all for the fantasy that it was.
I interviewed him in Germantown, not far from places where many runaway slaves hid during their flight from slavery en route to freedom in Canada. It is also just a few miles from Cheltenham, where Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, made her home.
Douglass met Mott at the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York convention for women’s rights. Eight years earlier, Mott and all women had been excluded from the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Quakers were among the leaders in the anti-slavery movement.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, requiring that slaves, even if they were in a free state in the north or west, be returned to their southern owners. The federal government was a participant in trying to find the runaways, and the captured runaways were often severely punished. The 30 year-old Douglass had escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, passing through Philadelphia on his way to points further north.
“I did a lot of research about Douglass’ voyage to freedom and his life — writing, lecturing, teaching, undermining the stereotype that blacks weren’t smart enough to be citizens.”
In spite of the power of his voice, Douglass was not a militant like Nat Turner. In “Under the Bonnet,” Carter will play a supporting role in Mott’s story, just as Douglass played an important but supporting role in the anti-slavery movement.
“Under the Bonnet” will play on Feb. 15, 2 p.m., at the La Mott Library in Elkins Park. The next day, it will be performed at 2 p.m. at The Second Baptist Church of Germantown, 6459 Germantown Ave. After that, it will move to a series of venues around Philadelphia.
Eric Carter will continue discovering and sharing characters on other stages. “Do what makes you happy, and approach it with a good heart and energy” is his credo. An hour with him, and I could feel that energy.
For more information: www.beacontheatreproductions.org or 267-735-1071.