Black to the Future – Living by Omission By Molly Crusen Bishop

Black to the Future Group photoPeoria, Illinois is right in the middle of the Midwest, and a good representative of how so much African American history of local, state, and national significance has been omitted and hidden from us all. Our past as a city in a free state was filled with many of the ills of slavery and injustice. Yes, Peoria was a hotbed on both sides of the issue. There were slavery sympathizer churches and newspapers, and abolitionist churches and newspapers as well. Lincoln lost the vote in Peoria to Douglas by the way with more people wanting a candidate who was for protecting slave holders rights. The moral compass of our country was tested then and even up to this day here dealing with racial issues.

Garry Moore has done an excellent job bringing overlooked Peoria African American history to the forefront in a magnificent two-hour-long play called Black to the Future, based off of Dr. Romeo B. Garrett’s book titled “The Negro in Peoria.” The play was held on March 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at Woodruff High School.

As the playwright and director, Garry incorporated many people and stories, weaving a tale of tragic and painful issues about people suffering from the evils of slavery, and bringing many heroes to life. He has connected with people from all walks of life who have a need and hunger to learn about the heroes and stories that have been omitted for more than a hundred years. We have been living by omission for far too long, omitting too many truths. This masterful play helps bring the long-hidden truths to the table for all of Peoria’s stakeholders.

The cast was large with lead roles Jemal played by Richwoods High student Justin Worley, and Bertram, played by Peoria High’s Cameron Walton. The show begins with their teacher Ms. Watkins, played by Arnitra Shaw, and begins a trip back in time in Peoria’s past introducing the major characters along an intriguing journey.

Garry Moore portrayed Union Civil War Soldier Joseph Barquet and Dr. Romeo B. Garrett. Dressed in a Union Civil War uniform in the first half, Garry brought many to tears singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic as Barquet, and also laughter as Dr. Garrett in the second act covering heavy elements while weaving in just the right amount of levity and laughter. As a local historian, writer and with a background in theater, I was happy to portray an abolitionist journalist named Mrs. Davis. My husband in the play was Samuel Davis, portrayed by Zak Edmonds, who was Bertram in the 2003 production. I truly felt raw passion in my role yelling and scolding the evil pro-slavery organizer Andrew Gray, played by Neil Devlin, and lecturing him on the injustices and shameful laws and practices going on here in Peoria benefitting southern slave holder’s pockets.

Bernice Gordon Young played Peoria’s first black female doctor, Dr. Maude Sanders. Tyler Lopez portrayed Abe Lincoln. Couri Thomas played Peoria pioneer Thomas Lindsey. Peoria High School’s Annie Turnbo Malone was played by Janda’ Carter, leaving the audiences in fits of laughter. Don Jackson was excellent as Frederick Douglass, Elner Clark portrayed herself in a poignant scene following the very talented Jon Tay Strickland who played her brother Mark Clark, who was a Black Panther shot to death by Chicago police in 1969, with evidence pointing to an unjustified shoot. This was Jon Tay’s first play and he was a natural actor. I predict we will be seeing him in many more productions. We all believed the truth he was demonstrating as a youth struggling to bring justice and food and help to his fellow black men, women, and children suffering all around him.

The entire cast and crew formed a bond during the many rehearsals and became especially close over the three-day run of the show. Everyone did a great job telling the missing stories of heroes and villains; bringing triumphs and tragedies to the forefront. They could feel the emotional connection from the audience each night, with members of the audience uttering their soft but audible words of agreement on the sad, painful, and anger-inducing parts as well as their laughter during the fun moments.

The education and feeling of pride, love, and understanding of the truth people walked away with leaves those that heard about the great show wanting to come be a part of celebrating these special stories.