One-man play aims to help people discover Josiah Henson

Published on: August 3, 2019 | Last Updated: August 5, 2019 4:40 PM EDT
Ellwood Shreve
eshreve@postmedia.com

DRESDEN – Well over a century after Josiah Henson escaped slavery in the U.S. and established the Dawn Settlement here, where several slaves found freedom in Canada, people are still learning about the man known as Uncle Tom. While many are impressed by Henson’s story, it greatly moved Cassel Miles, whose family immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1971 when he was seven. The professional actor from Kingston has collaborated with writer and director Charles Robertson to create the one-man play Josiah Henson: From Slave to Saviour, which was featured Saturday during the annual Emancipation Day event at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.

Miles told The Chatham Daily News Saturday he came across a presentation about Henson while watching the Discovery Channel in 2004. “I had never heard of this man and the story so touched me, I was compelled to watch and then to find out more,” he said. After researching what Henson did as an abolitionist, author and minister, “That’s when I began to think: ‘Wow, how come I don’t know this man?’” Miles said. He also wondered how many other Canadians don’t know about Henson. Miles said it’s been his mission for the past 15 years to learn all he could about Henson and find a way to tell his story.

He said Henson escaping slavery was no small feat, which is covered in the first act of the two-act play. But what particularly impressed Miles is what Henson did when he arrived in Dresden, establishing the Dawn Settlement, preaching and lifting up other people, and helping to create the British American Institute to educate slaves who found freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad. Last December, Miles said he and Robertson became serious about creating and presenting a play on Henson’s life. They used Henson’s 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, to use his own words to tell the story. He said they also drew inspiration from Jarod Brock’s book, The Road to Dawn, and his biography, Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story.

When Miles told him about Henson, “I thought that’s a good story to tell; it’s a powerful story,” Robertson said. He refers to the play as story theatre, where Miles describes what he’s doing. Miles said Robertson has evolved and expanded the story to include other characters and create scenes between people. Miles portrays all the characters in the play.

Robertson said he likes the way Henson spoke, “so I try to have dialogue that kind of mimics his way of speaking.” Noting there is no plans to include special effects in the production, Robertson likes this “bare bones” kind of production. “So when (Miles is) on stage, the audience will see what he tells them to see, so their imagination lets them see everything that’s going on.” The play has been performed at the Baby Grand studio theatre at Kingston’s Grand Theatre, and is slated to be performed on the main stage of the Grand Theatre on Oct. 23. The production also had a one-week run at the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto this past May and was recently part of the Store Front Fringe Festival in Kingston.

Miles said he often sees an incredulous look in the eyes of people who learn about Henson from this play. “I tell them about what he did here. How he changed life here for people,” Miles said. He added many people have indicated they want to learn more about Henson, so he refers them to Henson’s autobiography as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. Miles and Robertson continue to delve into the life of Henson with the goal of tweaking and evolving this story on stage.

“It’s not finished, yet,” Miles said. “No, no, the story is not done, the play is not done.”