“Faces of Phillis,” a staged reading and panel discussion, celebrating Phillis Wheatley Peters was a Roaring Success
The Associates of the Boston Public Library held our fifth annual Pierce Performance, Faces of Phillis, on Monday, December 4th, at the Boston Public Library (BPL). At this annual literary event, was centered around Phillis Wheatley Peters, “the first published Black American poet’s life, poetry, and legacy,” as mentioned by The Boston Globe. This year, The Associates decided to honor Phillis Wheatley Peters by celebrating the 250th anniversary of her seminal work, 'Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.' This groundbreaking poetry book established Phillis as the first published Black American poet, and the event was dedicated to her life, poetry, and enduring legacy.
The event was incredibly successful with a turnout of approximately 180 audience members, notably including David Leonard, President of the BPL, Priscilla Douglas, author and BPL Trustees Chair, Rick Stone III, Treasurer of the Associates Board, Vivian Spiro, former Chair of the Associates Board, Joe Berman, Board member of the Associates and the BPL, and many more. The night began with an introduction from the Associates' Board Chair, Alyce Lee.
This was followed by an introduction by our playwright, Adeola Solanke, who shared some slides that provided helpful background on the star of the evening, Phillis Wheatley Peters. Adeola also provided insight into her previous work on Phillis, as well as background on the characters from the staged reading we were about to watch.
Our three-part event included:
- Faces of Phillis, a staged reading written by British-Nigerian playwright Adeola Solanke, and directed by Regge Life.
(From left to right) Adreyanua Jean Louis (Phillis Wheatley Peters), Serenity S'rae (Obour Tanner), Junior Cius (Scipio Moorhead).
The first scene, Reflection, was set in the garden of Reverend John Moorhead's house, near the Liberty Tree, South End of Boston, in 1773, before Phillis’s transformational trip to London. This scene focuses on Phillis’s friendship with young Boston African artist, Scipio Moorhead, played by actor Junior Cius. The teenager, enslaved like Phillis, is credited with having sketched the portrait that the book's frontispiece was based on. This is believed to be the first image of a woman writing in America. Phillis wrote a poem to this young African artist; her only work addressed to another African.
Actors Adreyanua Jean-Louis and Serenity S’rae reprised their roles of Phillis Wheatley Peters and Obour Tanner respectively from Adeola Solanke’s Phillis in Boston at Revolutionary Spaces, which ran from November 3rd – December 3rd. Stage directions were read by our Associate Producer, Kim Mae Waller.
The second scene, Rebirth, took place a decade later, in 1781, and was set in the front room of the Wilkins Farm in Middleton, Massachusetts. This scene sees Phillis and her husband, John Peters, played by actor Joshua Lee Robinson, dealing with the economic privations of the war and the loss of their two infant babies. They are helped by midwife, healer, and abolitionist, Elizabeth Freeman, the first woman to legally sue for - and win - her freedom in a Massachusetts court. Mumbet/Elizabeth Freeman was played by theatre artist and educator Regine Vital, who has performed for the Associates before in our 2021 Pierce Performance, ONWARD – Votes for Women, written by Lisa Rafferty.
(From left to right) Serenity S'rae (Obour Tanner), Adreyanua Jean Louis (Phillis Wheatley Peters), Regine Vital (Mumbet/Elizabeth Freeman), Joshua Lee Robinson (John Peters).
- A panel discussion moderated by Lisa Rafferty.
The second part of the evening began with a brief presentation by sculptor Meredith Bergmann, who projected images of the process of creating her sculpture of Phillis Wheatley Peters, part of the 2003 Boston Women’s Memorial. The audience then heard insightful discussions from panelists Ade Solanke, our playwright, Meredith Bergmann, a sculptor, and Kyera Singleton, the Executive Director of the Royall House Museum. They discussed the impact of Phillis Wheatley Peters today as well as each individual panelist’s career in relation to her. This was followed by questions from the audience.
(From left to right) Lisa Rafferty (Moderator), Adeola Solanke (Playwright), Kyera Singleton (Scholar), and Meredith Bergmann (Sculptor).
3. A dramatic poetry reading by the City of Boston’s Poet Laureate and BPL Trustee, Porsha Olayiwola.
Porsha read one of Phillis’s poems, " On The Death Of A Young Lady Of Five Years Of Age.” Porsha then read her own impactful poem, “THE PHILLIS, 1761,” that begins with an epigraph from Phillis Wheatley Peters.
We ended the night with closing remarks from our Board Chair, Alyce.
This event would not have been possible without the wonderful members of the Pierce Committee, Anita Lincoln (Co-Chair), Margo Newman Levine (Co-Chair), Peter Drummey, Joan Patton, and last but definitely not least, Lisa Rafferty.
We also wish to extend a special thanks to Angela Peri and Boston Casting, Tufts Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and our Boston Public Library colleagues, including David Leonard, Jay Hamilton, Erica Husting, Beth Prindle, Jay Moschella, Kathleen Monahan, Angela Veizaga, Communications Team, Events Team, Facilities, and Security.
If you missed it, we are delighted to share a short highlight reel of the event with you.
About the Associates' Pierce Performance Series
The Associates' Pierce Performance Series seeks to raise the visibility of the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections through free public performances and lectures. Thanks to the generosity of the Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust, this series has commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Peace Jubilee, explored abolitionists' vital messages, celebrated women's suffrage, and explored the life of Thomas Paine
All photos were taken by Nile Hawver.