This high school theater class turned a local news story about the legacy of a freed slave into a play
It was late 2017, and Springfield News-Leader reporter Giacomo Bologna was in the city’s archives pulling documents for a story he was writing about a murder case in the southwest Missouri city.
While he was there, archivist Connie Yen approached him to share some unrelated documents.
They were documents that eventually showed how a slave named Milly Sawyers had won her freedom in an 1834 lawsuit but was then later beaten by a white mob, which included many of Springfield’s notable residents, including its founder.
“I started doing some research with the archivist and started working on it quietly,” Bologna told me. “She found a lot more court cases associated with Milly Sawyers and started to paint this really incredible picture.”
And after Bologna published his article in March 2018, a local high school theater teacher took the story and turned it into “The Milly Project,” a play documenting Sawyers’s life and the backstory of how Yen and Bologna brought her back to attention.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to take a look at “The Milly Project” to better understand how newsrooms can work with outside partners to share their reporting in ways designed to reach new audiences.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one worthwhile thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: A Springfield, Missouri archivist uncovered documents that shed light on the story of a freed slave, Milly Sawyers, who was beaten by a mob, which included the town’s founder.
• The Strategy: A newspaper reporter wrote a story about Sawyers, and a local high school theater professor read the story and decided to turn it into “The Milly Project,” a play on her life.
• The Numbers: “The Milly Project” has been performed eight times to date.
• The Lessons: By working with community groups and turning the story into a non-traditional story format, the reporting on Sawyers’ story was able to reach a larger, more diverse audience.
• The Future: The students who produced “The Milly Project” have more shows lined up this fall.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about how other news organizations have used stage productions to highlight their journalism.
On April 1, 1836 a mob of white men broke into a Springfield, Mo. home and dragged Milly Sawyers out into the street, where they beat her.
Sawyers was a free Black woman.
In 1834 she successfully sued for her freedom from slavery. She had tried twice before to win her freedom, arguing that because one of her previous owners had taken her to Ohio, which was not a slave state, she was free woman and could not be held as a slave in Missouri. (This was before the 1857 Dred Scott decision when the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans could not sue for their freedom.)
But on that night in 1836, when the mob came for her, Sawyers was in the home of a local family, who were likely abolitionists. Included in the group of men who came for her was John P. Campbell, Springfield’s founder. Today, there’s a major street in the city named for him.
It’s unknown what happened to Sawyers after that night, but the story of her ordeal and her long fight for her freedom were largely lost to history.
But in 2017, Greene County archivist Connie Yen was organizing some documents and came upon a box on African-American history. She noticed a document that mentioned a “free woman of colour,” which caught her eye.
“[The women of color] were being attacked by our founders,” Yen said. “It seemed like a big story that I had never heard of.”
Around the same time, Giacamo Bologna, who was then a crime reporter for The Springfield News-Leader, the local newspaper, was in the archives researching material for another story he was working on.
Bologna often visited the archives to do research for his stories and was friendly with Yen. She excitedly showed him the documents that began to tell Sawyers’ story.
Bologna was immediately intrigued, but he wasn’t sure whether his editor would think it was newsworthy, so he began working with Yen and other local historians in secret to dig up more information. (Bologna’s editor found out after he overheard him conducting an interview about the Dred Scott case, which is not a usual topic of conversation for a crime reporter, apparently.)
“When she showed it to me, I was interested, but when you work at a newspaper you’re used to covering breaking news, not news from 170 or 180 years ago,” Bologna said. “I was kind of worried that my editor wouldn’t find it all that interesting. I wasn’t sure if I presented the story at that moment how he would take it, so I started doing some research with the archivist and started working on it quietly. She found a lot more court cases associated with Milly Sawyers and started to paint this really incredible picture.
(A quick pause for an important disclosure: Bologna, who goes by Jack, and I are friends from college. We worked together at our student newspaper — Go Michigan Daily! — and I learned about “The Milly Project” from one of Jack’s Facebook posts.)
Bologna worked on the story for about six months, squeezing in time to do research between his day-to-day beat stories. He dug up other documents on Sawyers and was able to pinpoint where the attack occurred. The house’s location is now a nightclub parking lot.
Once the story was published, there was interest in the community to learn more about Sawyers.
The week the story was published, The Springfield Public Library held a panel discussion featuring Yen, Bologna, and other local historians.
But something even larger was brewing.
Kendra Chappell, who taught theater at Willard High School in Springfield, read Bologna’s story in the paper. Sawyers’ ordeal resonated with her.
“I immediately felt like I needed to tell that story,” Chappell told me.
Together with her students, she set out to create a play based on Sawyers’s life and the story of how her tale was re-discovered.
Chappell approached Yen and Bologna with the idea, and they were both on board. She and her students interviewed the pair to better understand the history and to ensure that the work was accurate. Yen and Bologna also signed releases granting permission for Chappell to use their likenesses in the work.
Chappell, in conjunction with her students, then went about writing and staging the show.
The play, called “The Milly Project,” debuted in March 2019.
“The Milly Project” starts with Yen stumbling upon the documents and Bologna writing his story in the paper. Yen and Bologna are characters in the play. (“That was something that made us look at each other and giggle a little bit,” Yen said.)
“It’s incredibly fortunate that her struggle was captured in these court documents; however, it’s kinda like trying to look at a painting through a straw,” Bologna, the character, says in the play. “You have that little piece that you can see, and it’s great, what you can see; but there’s so much more that you can’t.”
The Milly Project skips through time. It includes scenes from Sawyers’s trial and beating in the 1830s but it also connects her story to the larger history of slavery and race in America, spanning the decades from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to today.
“You see the advancement of culture, and society, and hopefully there’s an evolution of mind and spirit as we’re traveling,” she said. “You see it go back and forth in this production. I see her amid this backdrop of our country.”
Throughout the show, in fact, the characters address the audience and each other through time to emphasize how history can leave out some stories and how it directly impacts our world today.
“Write about me,” Sawyers says in the play. “I was born into slavery. I was a slave. I made my freedom. I disappeared. “
After every performance of “The Milly Project,” the cast invites the audience to participate in a group discussion about the themes of the play.
“We don’t do anything showy in our bow,” Chappell said. “We take a breath together as an ensemble and do a very soft bow, because it’s not about us, it’s not that kind of story, but it allows our audience to breathe.”
Since the play debuted this spring, “The Milly Project” has been performed eight times, including one show out-of-state in Jackson, Miss. That’s where Bologna saw the performance. Since writing the initial story he left the News-Leader and is now a reporter at The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson’s newspaper.
More than 100 people also attended the initial community gathering at the library.
“The Milly Project” was initially scheduled to debut at Willard High School, but the premiere was delayed multiple times due to inclement weather.
Despite the hold-up, the show has resonated with audiences.
“It was a very powerful performance,” Yen said. “Seeing a version of Milly on stage and hearing her voice…and how they have thought and felt at the time made it a little more real…Everyone was really excited about it, and it packed an emotional punch, I believe, for everyone.”
• The story doesn’t end when it’s published: This is starting to change as more newsrooms buy into more engaged journalism practices, but your story shouldn’t end once you hit publish. Of course, social promotion is common, but there are other ways to make your coverage relevant to your community.
Not everyone is going to read a story on your website, watch it on the 11pm newscast, or hear it on your podcast.
Different communities have different information needs, and it’s on newsrooms to find the best way to share their reporting with different audiences.
While the News-Leader wasn’t directly involved with “The Milly Project,” the play extended its reporting in a way a story in the paper or online never could.
If you scroll down to Want to Know More? you’ll see some examples of how news orgs have translated their reporting to the stage, but even beyond plays, publishers should better understand what most resonates with their audiences.
“It floors me to see them take something that I worked on and wrote, and not only turn it into a beautiful piece of art, but then have so many more people in the community then interact with it and learn about it…I never expected it when writing the article, but it furthered the conversation a lot.”
• Work with community partners: One of the reasons Bologna’s original story was able to grow into a successful community event and “The Milly Project” was because he was open to collaborating with organizations outside of the newsroom.
Local libraries, schools, and other community groups can be tremendous allies that can help news organizations connect with new audiences.
It can be easy for outlets to only focus on producing their reporting, but newsrooms should think about how they can engage others outside the newsroom.
An original play, obviously, is a huge undertaking, but there are easier ways these groups can collaborate by co-hosting events, sharing access to their online communities, and more.
• Turn every page: In a New Yorker excerpt of his recently published memoir, Robert Caro, the Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning author and journalist, shared some of the best advice he ever received. It was 1959 and he was a relatively new reporter at Newsday, the suburban New York newspaper covering Long Island. Managing Editor Alan Hathway called Caro into his office and told him:
“From now on, you do investigative work.”
I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”
Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.
Since then, that piece of advice has been “engraved in my mind,” Caro wrote. And it’s that mindset which led Yen to find the documents on Sawyers’ case and Bologna to report out more detail on her story.
Archives can be powerful tools for journalists. Historic documents can provide insight and first-hand accounts of people and decisions that still impact many of the issues we’re still confronting.
And by partnering with historians, journalists can find resources they might not be able to otherwise.
A lot of your best stories come from the people you meet on your beat,” Bologna said. “I would just go over to the archives pretty frequently, not every day but when I would go to get those records pulled, I’d make small talk…It really paid off.”
Chappell has retired and many of the students involved in the original production have graduated, but Willard High School is continuing to showcase the production. They have a series of shows lined up for this fall.
They’ll be performing “The Milly Project” for a group of Missouri appellate judges and an organization for young lawyers. They’re also planning a show for students at Missouri State University, which is located in Springfield. Finally, they have a performance scheduled for a conference of Missouri archivists and museum professionals, which is being held in Springfield.
Chappell said she hopes to continue to be able to stage performances of “The Milly Project” and she said that ideally, Sawyers’ story can be used to raise awareness of the challenges communities are still facing as they navigate the ongoing legacy of slavery and racism.
“It’s being used to mend things,” she said. “I’m proud about that. None of us can sway people and really make things work, but sometimes to move a little and see something from a different perspective is huge. I do believe it’s being used to heal.”
Want to know more?
• The Center for Investigative Reporting created StoryWorks, a program which translates CIR’s investigations into stage productions. Here’s a 2015 Poynter story with more detail.
• In 2017, a Chicago theater based a play on temporary workers in the city off of a ProPublica Illinois investigation. Here’s some background on the show, “Beyond Caring.”
• Getting young people involved in journalism can be a meaningful way to empower them to care about their communities. Last fall, I wrote about how a local Danish publication was involving high schoolers in an event called The Room of Solutions.
• Need some ideas for how you can work with academics in your community? My colleague Kyra Miller recently covered a gathering of historians and journalists the Lenfest Institute held in Philadelphia in partnership with the Lepage Center at Villanova University.
Anything to add?
Has your organization partnered with community groups outside of your newsroom? What worked? What lessons did you learn? I want to hear about it for a future issue of Solution Set.
And if you want to hear more about engaged journalism, you should attend a cool new conference— Hearken’s first-ever Engagement Innovation Summit. It’s October 23-24 in Brooklyn. I’ll be there and we’ll be trying something new: Solution Set Live, which will feature election-related case studies to help you get ready for 2020.
This summit will have dedicated tracks on what journalists can learn about engagement from other disciplines, and how your work can contribute to a better informed and active electorate for the upcoming elections.
As a Solution Set subscriber, you have access to a summit registration discount. Use the code SOLUTIONSET when you register by Aug. 31 to receive 10% off the early bird price.
Thanks, and I’ll see you next Thursday!