Amidst the normal hustle and bustle of preparing for the debut of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” at Lee College, student and community actors were challenged to pause and consider the historical context of the celebrated drama — guided by retired English and history instructor John Britt, who lent his knowledge to the cast and crew as a special consultant.
Presented by the college Theatre Department, the play centers on American author Henry David Thoreau and his refusal to pay poll taxes as an act of protest against the government’s involvement in the Mexican War. Performances are 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 7; 2:30 and 9 p.m., Saturday, March 8; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, March 9, at the Melva Johnson Black Box Theatre inside the college Performing Arts Center.
“This is a real change from what we’ve done, although there are still elements of humor,” said Kim Martin, technical theatre instructor and director of the play. “These are issues that many young people deal with in their lives; that’s what makes it timely. People learn more about themselves just by performing in it.”
In the darkened hush of the black box, the cast listened intently during a recent rehearsal as Britt explained how Thoreau struggled to grasp why he should obey the laws of the state, when the state supported a conflict he believed to be completely unjust.
“This is the kind of thing Thoreau was dealing with: the spirit of manifest destiny, the expansion of slavery,” said Britt, describing the mixed perceptions of the Mexican War and the significance of Thoreau’s legacy — particularly on Martin Luther King Jr., and others who later engaged in civil disobedience. “He had this idea that non-cooperation with evil is just as important as cooperating with good. My point is that Thoreau’s influence continues.”
The lesson resonated with Christopher McAnally, a second-year student at Lee who will play the part of Thoreau on stage. Though he has already acted in several Theatre Department shows, McAnally has found that portraying someone so well-known comes with both great excitement and a bit of pressure.
“Knowing the history makes a difference on whether you play Thoreau as just this man who’s really close to nature, or something much more,” said McAnally, who plans to graduate from Lee and continue his study of drama at a four-year institution. “He wanted to be the person who would resist peacefully and he accepted the consequences of his actions. Without his courage, I think a lot of things in history wouldn’t have been the same.”