Ronnequé Williams had heard of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
But the 19-year-old said she had never heard of Whisperin’ Bill until two actors brought the Civil war soldier to life at Phoenix Academy this month.
According to a poem written in the 1860s, a census taker approaches a farmer, who replies:
So you’re takin’ the census, mister?
Well, there’s three of us livin’ still;
Me and my wife, and our only son,
That folks call “Whisperin’ Bill”;
But Bill couldn’t tell you his name, sir,
And I think it’s hardly worth givin’;
For you see a bullet killed his mind,
And left his body livin’.”
In a scene from the play “The Color of Courage” Mitch Capel plays the farmer and Sonny Kelly, his damaged son, Bill.
As Kelly staggers forward, a bloody bandage wrapped around his head, Capel calls out, ‘Don’t you remember? I’m your father!”
But Bill can only keep whispering, a refain he must have told himself a thousand times as the bullets shot past him on the battlefield.
“God’ll take care of you, Bill. God’ll take care of you.”
It was a tough sell, transporting a roomful of teenagers in the alternative high school’s cinder-block lunch room back in time 150 years.
But the actors held the students rapt as they wove poetry and song together to tell the story of the 180,000 black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
It’s a story that Capel, who specializes in the work of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, had been telling by himself until he teamed with Kelly last year. The two had been castmates in a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” 20 years ago.
Kelly, a Shakespearean actor, had wanted to be a part of ‘Courage’ since he first saw Capel perform it.
“I thought, how cool would it be to be a two-man show,” he said, “but I didn’t have the guts to tell him.”
In different scenes in the lunch room, each played against 116 black and white and sepia slides, the two men became fellow soldiers, father and son, and in a chilling opening, slave trader selling an African tribal chief into slavery.
Capel deliberately started the Civil War tale in Africa, he said, because he wanted audiences to know African-American history did not begin in this country.
As Kelly struggled against his chains and grimaced, it was hard for the students not to feel his anguish.
“I knew a lot about the history of the Civil War, but I didn’t know African-Americans had such an impact on that history,” senior Mohammed Kassabi, 18, said afterward.
“Just the way they told the story,” he said. “It, like, pushed its way into you – into your heart.”
On the radio
Kelly heard school principal John Williams talking about Phoenix Academy on WUNC’s “The State of Things” and said he knew he had to bring the play to the school.
On the show, Williams was speaking about the school-prison pipeline, by which even small transgressions can put students in the criminal justice system.
The principal said unlike most alternative schools, where some students get sent for fighting or drug and alcohol use, Phoenix did not have a school resource officer.
He said there hadn’t been a fight at the school, at the time of the show’s taping, for four years,
And Kelly had to know more.
“I’d never head of an alternative school without an SRO,” Kelly said. “Who does that?”
Williams remembers the radio show, and he quickly adds there there has been one fight since.
But “I tell everybody I do not have problem children,” he said. “I have children with problems.”
“Don’t get me wrong; they run you crazy,” he continued. “But that’s OK. They’re children. That’s what children do. You meet them where they are and build them up from there.”
‘We thank you’
At the end of their performance, Capel and Kelly stripped off their soldier’s jackets and stood as the students and staff members who’d crowded into the long, narrow room applauded. No one seemed to mind when questions and answers ran over, making lunch a little late.
A student asked how the men made it so real.
Dunbar’s words, which Capel used to read to Kelly before they took the stage each night in “Mockingbird,” rattle in your bones, Capel said.
And his poems tell an American story, not just an African-American story, he said. His words are in the DNA of all Americans, and now that the students had heard them, in theirs too, he said.
“We thank you for showing up. We thank you for standing up,” the actors told them. “And like our ancestors, we hope you never give up.”
“The Color of Courage” is a project of the UNC-Chapel Hill Performing Arts Special Activities Fund and the Fayetteville Technical Community College Foundation. To book a performance email Sonny Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 210-793-5241.