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Eric Carl's play about Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American author, needs—and merits—more development to achieve its creators' high goals.

Afric's Muse world premiere at Barton College 

The life of a groundbreaking 18th-century poet

Afric's Muse

Barton College
Closed March 7

A biographical play about Phillis Wheatley is a daunting task in itself for a talented playwright and actor. The life of the first recorded African-American poet—also the first published African-American author—was beset with historical ironies and contradictions. After arriving in Boston in 1761 as a frail, 8-year-old Gambian slave dressed only in "a quantity of dirty carpet" (according to a published account from 1834), Phillis proved a child prodigy and a gifted writer after being educated by her owner's family. When American printers shunned her work, she found publication and fame in England, becoming for a while, in the words of Henry Louis Gates, "the most famous African on the face of the earth." The reversals following this pinnacle bespeak a woman whose loyalty to family superseded the value she placed on the freedom she gained in Britain, as well as the difficulties artists face in making a living from their work.

But when playwright Eric Carl, in Afric's Muse, frames that poet's experiences through those of another poet—a young African-American of the present, also named Phillis—he's asking not only what debt an artist truly owes her forebears but how anyone could possibly make the payments.

Still, Carl's intriguing script alludes to the gauntlet the present-day Phillis confronts in trying to approach her Revolutionary Era namesake, more than it successfully depicts it on stage. It only hints at the aloneness the 18th-century poet endured, contrasting her encounters with her owners' family with the modern-day Phillis' more quotidian negotiations for independence with her headstrong mom and boyfriend. And most of the actors in the play's Barton College world premiere weren't able to match the abilities of headliner Rasool Jahan as the dual protagonists. But given what Carl's ambitious script already accomplishes, Afric's Muse needs—and merits—more development to achieve its creators' high goals.


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