Written By Phillis at Quintessence Theatre

How many of you have ever heard of Phillis Wheatley? Sadly, I knew nothing of this 18th century enslaved Black American poet’s existence until Quintessence Theatre brought her to my attention with the world premier of Paul Oakley Stovall’s play, “Written by Phillis.” What a fascinating and brilliant young woman!

            The play begins with a grad student in an elective class, struggling as she tries to do her research on some unknown poet called Phillis Wheatley. “Who the hell is she?” she mutters to herself. She is soon to learn as Wheatley’s story unfolds to her and to us.

            The name Phillis Wheatley is actually a composite of Phillis, the name of the slave ship that brought the girl to Boston at the age of 7 in 1761 and of Wheatley, the name of the family that bought her.

            While the young girl was working at all the household chores assigned to her, the family took a special liking to her. She was taught to read. She was educated like the Wheatley’s own children. She soon started to write and had written many poems by the time she was a young teenager. We get to hear many of them as the story evolves and she recites them to us. Learned in classical literature and the Bible, she will eventually write of the immorality of slavery. But they are also about life and death. The depth of her poetry is remarkable for someone so young.

            The Wheatleys love her work and want to get Phillis published but unable to find a place in America, they send her to England with their son. Before what almost seems like a tribunal, she must convince the older white men that she really did write the poetry. Though it is humiliating, she rises to the event. Asia Rogers gives a powerful and poignant performance as the young poet.

            But the play is more complicated than her poetry. It is about her relationship with her owners, which she also considers her family. She interacts with free Blacks and when she is in England, she will have a choice to make as to whether or not to return as a slave.

            I loved the story that playwright Paul Oakley Stovall has written, full of fascinating history. He clearly did a ton of research. But I had some problems with the production. The supporting actors were portrayed in a rather two-dimensional style. A favorite of mine on the Philadelphia stage, Phillip Brown, even played two significant characters the same way. As a former director myself, I usually blame the director for such gaffes.

            In directing on the theater-in-the-round space at Quintessence, Cheryl Lynn Bruce allowed actors to plant themselves in one place too long and often, while they talked with their backs to us, it was hard to hear. It was even challenging to hear Phillis reciting her poems when she was turned away from me. We older folks in the theater (and today, there are plenty of us) need not to work hard to hear what is going on in front of us, if there is no action accompanying the words.

            The play was 1:40 minutes without an intermission. The last 15 minutes dealt with Phillis Wheatley’s life after she was given her freedom and with her life with her husband. It felt like an afterthought. I would have preferred either a two-act play with more about her or a shortened play with information about those last ten years in an epilogue, projected on a screen.

            Nevertheless, I enjoyed and loved learning so much about Phillis Wheatley. And if you like poetry, you’ll love it even more.

“Written By Phillis” by Paul Oakley Stovall & Marilyn Campbell-Lowe at Quintessence Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19119, 215-987-4450, quintessencetheatre.org   Thru June 4, 2023

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