Several years ago, when Andrew Saito was a graduate student at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, he went to the gym to work out. Looking for something to read while riding the stationary bike, he chose a magazine from the rack, bypassing Good Housekeeping, Cosmo, and Maxim for The Economist, which had a cover article about oyster harvesting in Chesapeake Bay. Reading it, he came across a couple sentences revealing that some Washington politicians had purchased vacation homes in the area. One of these politicians was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had bought Mount Misery—the former plantation where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a slave. Saito immediately decided he had to write a play.
“I felt like a bomb went off in my head,” Saito says. “I felt giddy.”
Doing research for Mount Misery, playing through June 7 at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, Saito found that Douglass, a rebellious teenager, had been specifically sent to Mount Misery because it was owned by Edward Covey, a notorious “slave breaker.” Covey became a character in the play, along with Rumsfeld’s wife, Joyce. Having her there fleshes out Rumsfeld’s character, Saito says.
“We’re used to him at Pentagon press briefings being snarky with reporters or being a leader—he was kind of a rock star right after 9/11,” says Saito. “Similarly with Douglass, we’re used to the statesman, the orator, the adviser to President Lincoln—a lion of a man with a lionesque mane. We’re not used to Frederick Douglass, the teenager. I wanted to explore these two iconic men who have a lot in common—they both grew up with nothing, both became very rich, both advised presidents, both worked abroad and had their own distinct way with words.”
Saito says he has always been fascinated by history, doing his thesis on the Trail of Tears, the forced march of the Cherokee to Oklahoma. He thinks history can help us understand our present moment, and looking at Douglass’s life and what he endured as a slave helps us make sense of issues today concerning race and power. According to Saito, with the recent high-profile cases of black men dying at the hands of the police, we need to look at the treatment of African Americans under slavery to understand how we got here.
“It’s one thing to look at Baltimore and New York and Ferguson and say, ‘This is a horrible national trend,’” he says. “If you look at Frederick Douglass and Edward Covey, you realize that this is not just about corrupt police or police needing to be educated. This is about violence against dark bodies being at the very core of not only American history and identity, but American economics.”
In Mount Misery, the relationship between Rumsfield and Douglass is almost that of a mentor with his mentee. The Cutting Ball’s artistic director, Rob Melrose, compares it to the TV show Diff’rent Strokes where an older white man gives advice to a young African American. Melrose believes hearing dialogue from across the years highlights some absurd assumptions people make about others who are struggling.
“There’s this idea with some Republicans that class and location and economics don’t play a part—that everybody is 100 percent responsible for their own lives. That seems absurd when you’re telling it to a slave—to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” he says. “In one scene when Rumsfeld sees Douglass’s scars, he says, ‘Well, I have scars too.’ You just see how ridiculous it is.”
Melrose says he finds the character of Joyce in the play and how she interacts with Douglass—telling him she loves his people and the music of Nat King Cole—one of its most interesting elements. She sees herself as a saintly figure helping the less fortunate, and while Melrose acknowledges that trying to help someone is certainly better than whipping him or her, he claims really what Joyce cares about is shopping and going to nice restaurants, and her personal comfort is more important than her principles. That’s something many of us can relate to, he says—not wanting to think about torture at Guantanamo or sweatshops where cheap clothing is made.
It’s critically important to look at Douglass’s life, Saito says, and to see him as he is in the play— still getting whipped—to understand what a phenomenally self-made man he was, having taught himself as well as other slaves to read, becoming an adviser to President Lincoln and an ambassador to Haiti, and traveling all over the world.
“Throughout his life he was breaking territory and breaking the glass ceiling,” says Saito. “When he was born, the glass ceiling was maybe an inch above the ground and by the time he died he was one of the wealthiest men in Washington, D.C.”
Douglass’s time at Mount Misery played a big part in the man he became. “He was sent to Edward Covey, this ‘negro tamer’ or ‘slave breaker,’” Saito says. “There was a shift in August of 1834 when he fought back. He didn’t lay a blow on Covey, but he prevented Covey from laying a blow on him. He said after that day Covey never hit him again. And not only that, but no other man ever hit him again. He says that was the day he became a man.”