The play, the centerpiece of a Reconstruction-themed issue, was posted on the Atlantic’s website today.
The Ghost of Slavery is set in Baltimore and Annapolis in the 1860s and the present, and, according to a description provided by the magazine, explores the power of historical trauma to persist for generations. The magazine describes the play as “a searing drama of great emotional and historical complexity set in two time periods, the effect of which is not just to bring history vividly (and at times painfully) to life, or to make plain the injustices meted out to Black Americans across centuries, but to make readers and audiences see anew the connections between past and present.”
As with such acclaimed Smith plays as Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (about the Rodney King riots), the new work draws from her own contemporary interviews with activists, social-justice workers, and young people whose lives have been affected by the carceral system, or the prison industrial complex. Examining the contemporary failures of the juvenile justice system, the play explores the origins of the problem in the aftermath of emancipation, when slaveowners in Maryland used the state’s “Black Code” to immediately re-indenture children under the guise of apprenticeship, functionally extending slavery for adolescents.
In the new work, though, Smith supplements the interviews with primary-source historical materials, including 19th-century archives and diaries. The play weaves the contemporary interviews with dialogue from the mid-1860s historical sources and features such real-life characters as President Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, General Lew Wallace, Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase, and more.
And unlike Smith’s earlier documentary-style plays, The Ghost of Slavery includes fictional, contemporary characters, though all the dialogue is drawn from Smith’s interviews. According to an editor’s note accompanying the published play, the magazine has footnoted “all material drawn from Smith’s interviews and from historical sources. Unless otherwise specified, any material not footnoted is invented (even when drawing on historical events). All contemporary characters are fictional, even those whose dialogue is drawn from Smith’s interviews.”
The Atlantic’s December issue focuses on “the enduring consequences and unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction,” according to the Atlantic. In addition to The Ghost of Slavery, the issue includes essays by such writers, historians, and Reconstruction scholars as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G. Bunch III, Jordan Virtue, Peniel Joseph, Drew Gilpin Faust, Eric Foner, and The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II, Adam Harris, and Yoni Appelbaum.
Smith, according to the publication, intends to stage the The Ghost of Slavery at some point in the future. In addition to her acclaimed plays, Smith is known to TV audiences for her performances in The West Wing and Black-ish.