Slavery has ended. How does a now-free African American start a new life? Reunite with family members separated by slavery. But to do that, he may have to keep his slave name, or send a letter to his previous owner asking for help—in short, he will employ any strategy he can.
These are some of stories explored in Nikkole Salter’s new play Torn Asunder, which runs Apr. 13-29 at St. Louis Black Repertory Company. Based on Help Me to Find My People, a book by Prof. Heather Andrea Williams, the play was commissioned by Williams and Kathy A. Perkins.
“Most people consider family to be the stabilizing institution of their lives,” Salter said. “That’s why when someone comes from a ‘broken family,’ we all tilt our head to the side and go, ‘Oh, what an uphill battle you must have.’ Because it’s such an important source of love and stability in a person’s life and their capacity to be able to achieve their destiny. So when you think about how our families were intentionally broken and how we tried to recover, you have a greater appreciation for that family unit.”
Salter, who is very familiar with African-American history, including the institution of slavery, said that the stories in Williams’s book were compelling, not because they were new to her but because she hadn’t deeply considered them before. Williams’s heavily researched book is in three parts, the first being about how families were separated; the second about people starting to look for their family members; and the third, the thinnest part of the book, about those people who were actually able to reunite their families.
“I’d never imagined what that would be like—the complication of actually reuniting your family after all had been said and done—and I was actually floored by that,” Salter admitted. “There were stories about people who had been separated when they were children, so they actually weren’t sure how tall their parents are, or if their parents would recognize them.”
Salter also recalled a moment in her play when two women, who were at odds before later coming together, are faced with a census taker. One woman claims a second woman as her sister, even though she’s not her blood sister, because the second woman has no other family.
“So forever on the census, it will say that that’s her sister, even though it’s not,” Salter continued. “When I think about the way I grew up, I can’t tell you how many what we would call ‘play cousins’ I would have—people who are not blood-related to me at all, who I or my family claim, because that’s the way that we create family. Not just blood. It’s love, it’s community. You don’t have to be blood-related.”
It was Perkins, Black Rep’s resident lighting designer, who reached out to Salter to commission a play because she and Williams both worried that her book wouldn’t be read outside of the academic community. Perkins thought the best way to convey its findings to a wider audience would be to dramatize them. Salter, who typically writes plays on contemporary subjects, was happy to have been handed the research rather than needing to spend years doing her own. Her only job was to decide the best way to tell the story.
In Salter’s hands, this play of struggle has quite a bit of levity. But Salter is quick to point out that the levity is never in the play for its own sake.
“It’s there because it’s a dramatization of the absurdity of life,” she said. “And if there’s one thing that’s the most absurd thing, it is the distinction of people based on this arbitrary mandate they call race. It’s absolutely, at times, absurd and quite hilarious.”
Coupled with that humor is a love story Salter hopes will leave audiences devastated the way they would be at the end of a romantic drama like The Notebook. She drew this thread from reading about the complications involved when a freed slave, after locating their spouse after a long time, found them with a new family.
“How can these people come back together? You’re going to want them to,” Salter said. “You’re going to feel the bittersweetness of the triumph of their freedom. Because what is it to be free without your family? Without the wholeness and completeness and sanctity of your family.”