by Danielle Dunham
Saint Augustine’s 450th anniversary celebration hosted a variety of events, shows, and presentation celebrating the town’s rich historical presence and community. Among fireworks, concert shows, and the like there were a number of presentations related to historical events that took place among the city. One such show was a presentation from the Fort Mose Historical State Park. Taking stage on the gazebo in the Plaza de la Constitution, the presentation lasted between 10-15 minutes in total.
The event opened with a dance performed by two women in front of the gazebo. After their dance, a brief introduction explained the content of the show and the significance of Fort Mose as the first free black settlement in America. During the course of the presentation a number of actors dressed in period clothing stood upon the stage. Each actor that came forth had a monologue, the first being a woman portraying a runaway slave. With an emphatic portrayal, the woman relayed the trials of her journey to get to Saint Augustine for a chance of freedom. She described events such as sleeping during the day and running at night to avoid capture as well as traversing through swamps. After her monologue, a Native American joined her on stage. He began to narrate his fight against the British, including the disregard of prior agreements such as land deeds and mistreatment of children. He continued on to narrate his desire to reach Florida for citizenship under the Spanish king, and how on his journey he helped other slaves escape to freedom with food and medicine.
Once their monologues concluded, both actors ran behind the stage as another man came on. He began to explain his troubles with catching game in the mountains, and turning to capturing runaway slaves instead. As he finished his monologue, a trio of militia men came around the gazebo before marching up the stage. The actor quickly absconded behind the curtain once more, the previous two actors came out once more. The leader of the militia began his monologue, welcoming both previous speakers to Fort Mose and Saint Augustine. After a view words from the introductory speaker, the event concluded with an expression of the hope embodied by Fort Mose and Saint Augustine and thanking the crowd before ending the presentation with another dance performed by a single dancer.
The entire performance was well put together and the participants were fully immersed in their assigned roles and seemed to enjoy themselves. The woman playing the runaway slave was particularly impressive, as her fervent dialogue expressed the intense emotions and goals with her portrayal. However it did seem a little over the top at times, with the militia men, who stood together to the left of the gazebo, laughing among themselves watching her during key parts of her monologue. The dialogue was projected well by the speakers and easy to hear and comprehend.
The audience was fully immersed within the experience as well. They gazed towards the stage with rapt attention, and clapped enthusiastically after each person finished their speech. This was especially evident when the former game hunter came out. During his initial introduction, he walked forward on stage, turned forward towards the audience, and asked if they had seen any runaway slaves. The audience shouted defensively back, denying their experiences with the prior monologues of both the Native American and the runaway slave. Regardless that the actor posed no danger to his fellow performers, they still responded as if their lives were in danger, and this denial might help spare them both. A good majority of the people attending the event were also photographing and recording the performance on cameras and cellphones as well. Out of all the attendees to the performance, only one woman in the audience sat uninterested, looking more at her book in the grass than towards the stage.
The performance as a whole enraptured the audience, but due to its brevity, or perhaps due to the audience, its significance seemed to dissipate at the close of the performance. Having been unfamiliar with Fort Mose compared to other historical locations within Saint Augustine, I personally felt it had only scratched the surface of the historical significance of the fort and the information I might be able to find within. While the presentation felt like could have been extended for a few minutes more, the feeling of wanting to know more potentially excites the spark of curiosity for any audience member who might have felt the same. and could invite that viewer into exploring the historical significance of Fort Mose further.
The Fort Mose presentation seemed to highlight heritage quite well. The production provided insight not only into the history of Fort Mose, but into the local history and heritage shared by residents of Saint Augustine, as well as a heritage for both African American and Native Americans and their hardships. It also, on a national level, relates to the heritage and history of the country as a whole.
Overall, Fort Mose had a well thought out, wonderfully executed and interesting presentation to contribute to the 450th celebration of Saint Augustine. The presentation’s short duration left something to be desired and the audience while very enamored during the show did not seem to reflect on what was shown but rather detached from the events post show. Despite this the spectacle was a wonderfully strong presentation of history and heritage melded into one, and was relatable to individuals both locally and to those who were visiting.