July 25th, 2012
“On the Side of Angels” at Mount Gulian
Actor Torrance Harvey, portraying escaped slave James F. Brown, and Anthony Charles, depicting Robert Newlin Verplanck, performed in “On the Side of Angels” on July 22nd.
FISHKILL - It’s not every day you meet a hero. On Sunday, at the Mount Gulian Historic site, guests were given a glimpse into the lives of not one, but two local legends. Both lived at the same residence.
For the fifth time (the second at the Mount Gulian location), history was reignited, as the final staging of “On the Side of Angels” took place. Once the packed crowd was seated, Elaine Hayes, executive director of Mount Gulian, set the stage. The time is June, 1863. James F. Brown, an escaped slave is working for the Verplancks. Patriarch Robert Verplanck, who has just graduated from Harvard, is about to make a riveting decision: As a white man, he will make the daring choice to enlist as a private in the newly formed United States Colored Troops (USCT), fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Verplanck not only went on to fight as a USCT member, but he further put his life on the line as an officer leading black troops. Capture by the white army had one consequence: death.
Regardless of the gamble, Verplanck, played by Poughkeepsie actor Anthony Charles, was steadfast in his decision to join the 180,000 African-American male troop that fought in the Civil War.
“With everything happening in this country, my duty is to enlist to fight and end the evil of slavery,” affirmed Verplanck’s character. “My family is proud to be against slavery.”
It was that family that purchased Browns’ freedom for $300. Working on the estate as the master gardener, Brown developed a bond with his employer, Verplanck, and was himself torn about whether a colored troop should exist.
“Men who can be slaves can endure much,” said James’ character, depicted by Newburgh actor Torrance Harvey. “Some black men say why fight if we haven’t been guaranteed our rights?”
Brown went on to present still another complex issue to Verplanck.
“Do you think slavery should exist just to keep the cotton industry alive?” challenged Brown.
“It’s not right to own people,” a reply resounded from an audience member.
Brown was one of the exceptions. A free man residing in the Verplanck home, he went on to purchase property in Beacon, earning the elusive right to vote, a fact proudly tallied in the 40 year journal he recorded. It’s those feats, along with many others, that were cause for Newburgh Free Academy history teacher Harvey to dub his Brown portrayal a dream role.
“I loved having this opportunity to play Brown because my two worlds (acting and teaching) came together. I actually had no idea about Brown until I learned about this role; it is the most significant one I have had in my acting career, as Brown is someone who played such a large role in history.” Harvey added, “Actors dream to embody this type of person.”
Charles was also quick to cite his gratitude for being able to capture the essence of the bravery and commitment Verplanck defined. The performances added still another unique challenge for both actors. Because of the interactive nature of living history, audience members were able to pitch questions to both characters. Such posed queries about the validity of Verplanck writing to his dog “Dan” and whether any descendents of the Brown family still reside in the area, had to be answered while staying in character and remaining true to the script.
“It can be very challenging with living history to interact with the audience,” pointed out Charles on the nature of the job. “Its dynamic nature really caused me to grow as an actor.”
“That fourth wall we as actors depend upon just comes down,” added Harvey.
Although library and historical venue presentations of “On the Side of Angels” have concluded, tentative plans are in the works to bring the thought-provoking piece to area secondary schools. It’s hoped the interactive genre will allow not only adults, but also youth, to witness firsthand the lasting appeal of history beyond words on paper.