It’s not often Hermann area residents get to see live theater portraying early German immigrants that settled the area. What makes this show different, according to St. Louis playwright Cecilia Nadal, the audience will learn the motivations behind several groups of immigrants that settled, who were busy mandating a moral message that would change the face of Missouri’s cultural and political scene forever in the mid 1800’s. Yes, they were (for the times) upstart reactionaries that arrived from the old country, shaped by Western European political frustrations, but who were they as people and what was their resolve to create a new direction in their new country?
The Showboat Theatre will be hosting “An Amazing Story: German Abolitionists of Missouri,” on Saturday, July 20, at 3 p.m. Directed by Vivian Anderson Watt, the “Amazing Story” takes the audience to a time in Missouri that was reeling from the Kansas/Nebraska Act that created the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars and the Missouri Compromise, which abolitionist writer Frederick Douglas called “a breach of honor,” that “fell across the nation like a bolt [of lightning] from a cloudless sky.”
It was the Mo. Compromise that provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free-state along with Missouri as a slave-state, thus maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate. It was the kind of history playwright Nadal could sink her teeth into to bring new insight to audiences.
She ran a company called Productive Futures that helped businesses and agencies understand different cultures, opening up the lines of communication to help people and groups achieve goals. Her father was African-American/Puerto Rican, from that island.
“My mother was from North St. Louis and she looked like she could be Latino, but she had Irish and [Native] Cherokee blood lines as well,” she said. “My entire career has been based on looking deeply on both sides of the fence, to understand the nature of what we’re looking at—how to bridge, gain empathy and how to get the best out of those differences that may be there. It also means tying into similarities [of different cultures].
Along the way, Nadal befriended a St. Louis dancer by the name of Danny Clark who had been a principal dancer for 10 years in Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe in New York. She took a group of young black men to see his play.
“I could see there was power in theater in helping people to see things that we might bring to them in a very didactic way,” she said. “When you get into role playing [such as in theater], you can kind of learn how to have the social skills that are important—that’s a whole different game.”
She says a student acting something out is much more productive than having a class expert “teach.” She asked Danny to come in and help with some training for kids that were high school dropouts that were dealing with anger issues in order to get them back into school. With some success, she realized she wanted to use the arts to bring people of diverse groups together. From more collaborations with Danny Clark and other people in the arts, Nadal was able to produce shows that highlighted the similarities of cultures that are drawn from the differences.
“People are seeing that there is not so much distance [between cultures], when I can get it to you right in front of your face (as spectators in the audience experiencing the same thing).”
She says this model of bringing different cultural groups together who witness the connections in a setting where you’re watching a show and can’t criticize the differences, proved to be a magical formula.
Within her own production company (Gitana, Inc.) she wrote and produced a play called “Between Worlds—an American Journey.”
“I wrote the play to show the concept of democracy is much more—it requires citizenship,” she explained. “It requires people to be engaged.”
She hired a Japanese composer for the music and engaged dancers because she was going to be dealing with heavy concepts. It was a culture crush that was received well enough, but Nadal was not satisfied. She got a sugar high from the effect the arts had on a mixed audience, opening audience hearts and minds before the curtain came down. She was passively searching for the next project while completing the day-to-day task of running a non-profit. While visiting with a program director from St. Louis University (SLU) about some interns, Nadal said he knew of her work in the city and showed her a monograph titled, “German Immigrant Abolitionists—FIghting for a Free Missouri,” researched by Dr. Sydney Norton, assistant professor of German in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at SLU. He told her if anybody could write a treatment for the stage based on this period of Mo. history, it would be her. It took her a year to finally read the material, but read it cover to cover.
“I asked the basic question—what was the nature of relationships between the Germans and freed and enslaved African-Americans that would move them to this point?
This question led Nadal down a long road of threads that involved black troops of the Union Army that helped start Lincoln University, along with Judge Arnold Krekel who was working for black suffrage. There was Heinrich Boernstein, one of the 48’ers, those young single Germans that came to America with revolutionary ideas who were members of a gymnastics guild for the emancipation of the fatherland, called Turnervereine. Some of them didn’t fall far from the Marxist tree.
According to “German Immigrant Abolitionists—Fighting for a Free Missouri,” they were considered a serious threat to the government, having participated in the 1848 uprisings in the German states. The Turnervereine members started “Turner Societies” throughout the east and in St. Louis in 1850, Washington in 1859 and Hermann in 1860. Members were pro-Union and antislavery.
At a time when the Whigs and Democrats were the only two political parties in the State, it was Boernstein that got the Republican Party on the ballot. He was also almost single-handedly responsible for signing up German volunteers for the Union Army. Two Yankee generals, Franz Sigel and Peter Osterhaus, both 48’ers, played a large part in contesting Missouri’s attempt at succession from the Union, while controlling railroads, riverways and keeping supply lines in Union hands.
This was history, so it was Nadal’s job as a playwright to bring relationships to life.
“What did they talk about?” she questions. “What was important? Why did these Germans take on slavery [in America]?”
She says the Germans came to Missouri in waves and several, such as the 48’ers, are represented in the play.
Cecilia Nadal will be present at the 3 p.m. matinee at the Showboat Theatre and will participate in a round table discussion concerning the German abolitionists.