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Pre-Civil War South drama premieres at South Coast Repertory

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Playwright Kemp Powers wrote “Little Black Shadows,” which has its world premiere at South Coast Repertory April 8 through 29 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
(Photo by Damu Malik )

Fireflies lighting up the night sky. Picking vegetables. The fauna, the wasps, the hornets.

They’re all vivid memories playwright Kemp Powers recalled when detailing his childhood summers spent with relatives in North Carolina.

“There’s a magic to the South,” Powers, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, said by phone. “I came to appreciate it more as an adult.”

Powers, who now visits North Carolina about three times a year, came across inspiring historical information that resulted in his latest play, “Little Black Shadows,” a drama making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory Sunday through April 29 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

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He discovered the personal recollections of former slaves documented by a Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. Powers said the first-person histories proved unsettling as the narratives didn’t particularly recount atrocities but rather depicted a kind of appreciation for cruel masters.

“Reading these first-person stories, you expect to come across horror stories,” Powers said. “What struck me was this thread of almost being grateful for the master they had. That caught me off guard and spoke to self-loathing.

“So many of these stories I read were stories of children. It was seen as a kindness to raise children in the house — a perception that you’re better off in the world to sleep in the corner as a puppy. Some slaves wished they could be slaves in the afterlife.

“It had a massively negative effect on the psyche of the slave and of the master and on every participant,” Powers said. “I felt incredibly compelled to get it on paper. The subject matter was riveting and challenged my own assumptions.”

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Powers, a journalist for nearly 20 years, has written for magazines and news organizations including Esquire, Forbes and Reuters but went out on his own to research and write “Little Black Shadows.” He sent his finished work to his agent who shared it with South Coast Repertory. The Costa Mesa-based theater invited Powers to premiere the play.

Created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (originally the Works Progress Administration), the Federal Writers’ Project was created to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers and librarians, among others. The project gave work to writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel.

In the 1930s, the writers’ project sent writers out to document the lives of the last generation alive that had been born into slavery. The collection is called “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.”

Powers increased his visits to the South, stopping by plantations that were converted into bed and breakfasts where slavery was brushed over, he said. He found the Whitney Plantation — a restored history site in Louisiana extensively documenting the black slave experience.

The title of his play “Little Black Shadows,” points to an expression of the day.

White children in the house often had their own child slave, called a little black shadow.

Powers’ play is set in pre-Civil War Georgia, where child-slaves Toy and Colis spend days on the plantation silently serving adolescent twins in the big plantation house.

At night, as Toy and Colis lie beneath their masters’ beds, they whisper stories to each other through a vent in the wall. When the father announces that the family is moving to Louisiana, the children face uncertain futures.

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“It’s easy to tell a story of a slave owner,” Powers said, “but I wanted to share the children’s interpretation.”

If You Go

What: “Little Black Shadows”

When: Sunday through April 29; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Sundays

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org.

kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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