Arts & Entertainment

‘Portraits’ Displays Race History of Falls Church

The history of the City of Falls Church stretches back more than 300 years. The town existed in some form before the Industrial Revolution, before the Civil War and before the Revolutionary War. And with the Tinner Hill Blues Festival starting on June 10, the Creative Cauldron is re-staging “Tinner Hill: Portraits in Black and White,” a theater piece originally staged last year that explores the history of race and conflict in the Falls Church area from the post-Civil War era, through the Jim Crow era and up to the present.

The history of the City of Falls Church stretches back more than 300 years. The town existed in some form before the Industrial Revolution, before the Civil War and before the Revolutionary War. And with the Tinner Hill Blues Festival starting on June 10, the Creative Cauldron is re-staging “Tinner Hill: Portraits in Black and White,” a theater piece originally staged last year that explores the history of race and conflict in the Falls Church area from the post-Civil War era, through the Jim Crow era and up to the present.

The play loosely follows the journey of a powder horn, originally stolen from colonial settler Colonel Broadwater during a battle between the settlers and American Indians. The horn was then passed down for over 200 years from one generation to another until it is placed in the “Museum of Revisionist History,” which fails to mention the rich history of the African-American family that preserved the horn so long. But while this may seem like just another tale in the world of theater, this actually occurred to actress Ayesis Clay, whose passion and anger can be felt during the scenes that show the museum’s unwillingness to include her family’s contribution. Although Clay did not reveal the actual name of the offending museum, the issue was merely one of many historical injustices presented by the narrator Freddie, played by Raquis Da’Juan Petree.

The production, a series of monologues and vignettes exploring the sometimes amicable but often contentious relationship between Caucasian and African-American residents in the City of Falls Church, was written by Lisa Hill-Corley and Jennifer Goldsmith with numerous contributions from Nikki Graves and Edwin B. Henderson from the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, theater artist Oran Sandal, Creative Cauldron founder Laura Conners Hull and the rest of the cast.

Because of the intimate space of the Creative Cauldron, several audience members stated that they felt almost no distance, physically or emotionally, between themselves and the actors on stage during the 19-act play. During the musical numbers, most of which were “freedom songs” composed by freed slaves after the Civil War or famous ragtime pieces from the early 20th century, several members of the audience could also be seen mouthing the words, somehow resisting the urge to loudly sing along, although the cast stated afterwards that several previous audiences have sung along.

The play’s subject of racial harmony or disharmony in Falls Church after the Civil War is complex, yet the actors do an outstanding job of presenting Falls Church African-American figures like Mary Ellen Henderson, E.B. Henderson and Ollie Tinner as real people with difficult tasks before them. And though the presence of Ku Klux Klan members (who are portrayed in the play by black actors at one point) in the City is virtually non-existent, Tinner Hill forces audience members, especially those who have lived in Falls Church for many years, to take another look at their town and reevaluate the history of the land around them. For a town so small to have such a rich history is rare, but for a local theater to portray this cultural history so clearly is even more rare.

“Tinner Hill: Portraits in Black & White” will run through June 12 at the ArtSpace in Falls Church. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $12 for students and seniors.

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