History takes center stage

This weekend, ‘The Anvil’ brings John Brown’s final days to life

he story of abolitionist John Brown is perhaps Jefferson County’s most famous.

In the fall of 1859, Brown aimed to take the slavery question into his own hands, leading a ragtag band to Harpers Ferry, where he hoped to seize the federal arsenal, arm slaves in the surrounding countryside and start a rebellion.

Things did not go as planned.

Before the year ended, he’d been captured, tried and hanged.

Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown” in 1884. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown” in 1884. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Those final two months of Brown’s life riveted attention across the United States and around the globe, and historians say put in motion divisions that would spark the Civil War less than a year and a half later.

“It was pretty much the one time the whole world was looking at us,” explains Joe Yates, a longtime resident of Jefferson County who will produce, direct and star in “The Anvil,” the 1961 play by the late Julia Davis that tells Brown’s tale.

Yates said he wants audience members to feel like they’re actually seeing history unfold. “When you come up to the steps of the courthouse it’s like you’re going back in time,” Yates says.

The play is based on actual transcripts and other written records from the trial and the events surrounding it. “The Anvil” will be staged at the Jefferson County Courthouse, though the building where Brown’s trial was held was burned during the Civil War.

The current courthouse was built on the same plot.

“I look at this as a unique opportunity,” Yates said. “We are very, very lucky to be able to do that, and people are lucky to be able to see it. It’s amazing to be able to use that space.”

“The Anvil” also lends itself to community theater, Yates said. Because actual Jefferson County residents volunteer to portray the characters, the action of the play seems authentic. “That’s what makes it real,” he says.

Many of the actors have been involved in the production for several years and return to it out of a love of history.

While most people familiar with Brown’s story tend to see him as either a villain or a saint, “The Anvil” presents all sides of the story, according to Rico Massimino, who serves as the narrator in this year’s production.

For Doug Craze, who plays Brown’s jailer, getting familiar with that history is part of the appeal. Craze has researched the real history of his character’s life.

Homer Speaker, a real-life lawyer who will play the prosecutor, agrees.

“It’s a great play,” he says. “It happened here. It’s real for us. It’s part of who we are.”

 

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