Finding Freedom: The Journey of Robert Smalls

Produced by the Charleston Gaillard Center

World Premiere Friday, October 6, 2023

This fall, the Charleston Gaillard Center is proud to present its first ever original theatrical work based on the life of Charlestonian Robert Smalls.

The “Finding Freedom: The Journey of Robert Smalls” production will tell the story of the formerly enslaved man who engineered a daring sea-escape during the Civil War and spent the rest of his life—including five terms serving in the U.S. House of Representatives—working for equality in the postwar South.

Join us on this vital journey of acknowledgment and exploration of the past, the present, and the future!

Program Goals and Impact

Develop and distribute new family theatrical productions highlighting Southern history.

Tell stories often missing from the state curriculum.

Present productions across the Southeast and then nationally.

Provide a home for local and regional stories on the Gaillard Center’s stage.

Reach 6,000 students over four performances.

70% participating students come from Lowcountry Title I schools.

Two public performance reach 3,000 patrons.

About Robert Smalls

Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls was a deckhand on the Confederate USS Planter during the Civil War. He successfully commandeered the ship and freed his crew, before traveling to Washington to persuade President Lincoln to accept Black men into the Union Army.

He subsequently served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he passed legislation for the creation of the public school system in South Carolina, which later became the model for the nation.

About the Production

The world-premiere will be directed by JaMeeka Holloway. She will lead a creative team comprised of Southern-based artists including Playwright Teralyn Reiter, Music Director and Grammy Award-winner Charlton Singleton, Scenic Designer Brandi Alexander, Costume Designer Celeste Jennings, Lighting Designer Kathy Perkins, Movement Director Tristan André Parks, and Dramaturge Damon Fordham. 

Though currently still in development, the production will offer free performances for students in the Lowcountry and ticketed public performances, with further details to be announced soon.

Meet the Creative Team

JaMeeka Holloway, Director

JAMEEKA HOLLOWAY: DIRECTOR

Raised in Durham, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell has been a professional theater artist and champion for Black theater in the Triangle for years. She earned her theater degree from North Carolina Central University and continued her education as an apprentice for The Lark Play Development Center, and later, as an assistant director with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. An Indy Arts Award winner in 2018, she is a 2019-20 grant recipient of both the Manbites Dog Theater Fund and the Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Program. In February 2019, Holloway-Burrell was honored by the African American Heritage Commission and Governor Roy Cooper for her contributions to the arts and culture landscape of North Carolina. She also served as a 2019 theatre panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and for the North Carolina Arts Council. Her directing work has appeared on numerous stages, including: Vermont’s Northern Stage; Shakespeare in Detroit; Classic Stage Company in New York City; Durham’s Manbites Dog Theatre; the Department of Theatre at Dartmouth College; Durham Performing Arts Center; and the National Black Theatre Festival.

Teralyn Reiter, Playwright

TERALYN REITER: PLAYWRIGHT

Teralyn earned her MFA in Acting from the University of Montana. She is an actor, a Teaching Artist, a director, a playwright, and a mom. Teralyn has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia bringing theatre performances and education to students. In 2010 she developed and implemented a theatre program in Daegu, SK teaching students English while writing and performing their own play. In 2011, Teralyn founded Storytree Theatre with the mission to bring professional theatre education and performances into schools throughout Charleston, SC. She has had the privilege to develop content for the Kennedy Center’s Teaching Artist Presents series, she earned a Fellowship from the Wolf Trap Institute, and she developed original online programming for the Educational Theatre Association.

She created Theatreteacher.org, an online resource for teachers who are interested in arts-integrated lessons. When she is not working as a Teaching Artist, Teralyn is performing, hanging with her kiddo, and writing and producing original plays about historical figures she finds intriguing. Her most recent play, The Only Woman in the Room, premiered in July 2022 in Damariscotta, ME. It told the story of the first female Cabinet Member, Frances Perkins, and her work on the Social Security Act of 1935. She currently lives in Damariscotta, ME where she continues to develop original programming for schools throughout the United States, write plays, and perform.

Charlton Singleton, Musical Director

CHARLTON SINGLETON, MUSICAL DIRECTOR

A native of Awendaw, SC, Charlton Singleton began his musical studies at the age of three on the piano. He would then go on to study the organ, violin, cello, and the trumpet throughout elementary, middle, and high school. In 1994, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance degree from South Carolina State University. Since that time, he has taught music at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, as well as being an adjunct faculty member at the College of Charleston. In 2008 he co-founded and became the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra; an 18-piece jazz ensemble of some of the finest professional musicians in the Southeast and the resident big band in Charleston, SC. Mr. Singleton is also the organist and choir director at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Charleston, SC. In November of 2016 he was named the inaugural Artist in Residence at the recently renovated Gaillard Center in downtown Charleston. He remained in this position until July 2019; at that point he was named Artist in Residence Emeritus. In this position he continues to lead the Summer Youth Jazz Orchestra Camp as well as lead the “Jazz Through the Ages” assembly, which attracts a capacity crowd of students at the Gaillard Center.

As a performer, Charlton leads his own ensembles that vary in size and style. He has performed in France, Great Britain, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, The Netherlands, as well as many great cities throughout the United States. He is a founding member of an ensemble called Ranky Tanky. The group is a quintet that interprets the sounds of Gullah from the Southeast Coast of the United States. In 2017 Ranky Tanky reached the top of the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Contemporary Jazz charts with their self-titled debut recording. In 2019 they accomplished the same feat with the release of their sophomore effort, “Good Time”, which won the 2019 Grammy Award for “Best Regional Roots Album”. In 2022 the band’s live recorded set at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was nominated for and won the Grammy Award in the same category. In 2021 he was the recipient of the SC Governor’s Award, which honors arts organizations, patrons, artists, members of the business community, and government entities who maximize their roles as innovators, supporters, and advocates for the arts. It is the highest honor for the arts in the state of South Carolina.

In addition to performing, he is in demand as a speaker, clinician, composer, and arranger. He has also shared the stage with and/or worked with some of the most talented entertainers in the world, including Lisa Fischer, Bobby McFerrin, Ruby Dee, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, Houston Person, Darius Rucker, Fred Wesley, and Cyrus Chestnut to name a few. Outside of music and entertainment, he, and his wife, MaryJo, are the proud parents of Shalamar and D’Marcus and new grandparents to Sophia Rose. They are also parents to their FIVE pets…Jango, MoJo, Dakota, Pumpkin, and Ginger.

Brandi Alexander, Scenic Designer

BRANDI ALEXANDER, SCENIC DESIGNER

Brandi Alexander is a theatre designer from Houston, Texas. She is currently earning an MFA in scenic design at the University of Houston, where her design credits include Marisol, Picnic, Silence, and Little Shop of Horrors. She has worked as lighting designer on Ride the Wave at VORTEX Repertory Theatre and assistant scenic designer on Our Lady of 121st Street at UH, King Lear and Cymbeline at Houston Shakespeare Festival, and Panto Snow White and The Seven Dorks at Stages Repertory Theatre. Brandi was awarded Main Street Theater’s 2022 BIPOC scenic design fellowship and was a 2022 winner of the Black Theatre Network’s Judy Dearing Student Design Competition. She received her BA in Mass Media Communications from Prairie View A&M University.

Celeste Jennings, Costume Designer

CELESTE JENNINGS, COSTUME DESINGER

Celeste Jennings is a costume designer and playwright. She’s currently an MFA candidate at NYU and is expected to graduate in spring 2023. She’s a child of southern drawl, of iced tea with just enough lemon, family reunions that last late into hot summer nights, round tables of relatives reminiscing the good ole days, and the sounds of their comforting laughter. She uses the language of her family to quilt love songs for Black people and invites them to stop and rest awhile as they refamiliarize themselves with the poetic diction of home. She loves to incorporate her unique perspective into her work and is particularly motivated to uplift and protect Black women as a writer and designer. Her dream projects evoke the past, present, and future and remind Black women that they are loved, that they’re soft, powerful, capable of resting, deserving of liberation, and that they are everything- that they always have been. Most recently, her play ‘Bov Water was produced at Northern Stage, and she developed her play, Contentious Woman, with PlayCo. Selected work includes Citrus (produced at Northern Stage), and Processing. Lately she collaborated with JAG in a designer workshop for Urinetown and worked as an assistant designer on The Notebook. She’s grateful to her community of friends, family, and mentors for encouraging and uplifting her work and is excited to graduate soon and continue to learn and grow as a human being and artist. 

Kathy Perkins, Lighting Designer

KATHY PERKINS, LIGHTING DESIGNER

Kathy A. Perkins is Professor Emerita (1989–2011) in lighting design and Africa/African Diaspora theatre. She joined the department to reinstate the MFA lighting design program, which she headed for twenty years. She developed new courses in African/African Diaspora theatre in addition to non-Western theatre courses.

In addition to productions at UIUC, Perkins has designed on Broadway and at such regional theatres as American Conservatory Theatre, Arena Stage, Berkeley Repertory, Seattle Repertory, St. Louis Black Repertory, The Alliance, Goodman, Steppenwolf, Congo Square, Manhattan Theatre Club, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, New Federal Theatre, Definition Theatre, Mark Taper, Indiana Repertory, Writers Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Two Rivers Theatre, and Playmakers Repertory Company. She is the recipient of such design awards as NAACP Image Award, National Black Theatre Festival Award, and was a nominee for the L.A. Ovation Award. Internationally, she has designed in Switzerland, Austria, and South Africa.

Perkins edited Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950, Black South African Women: An Anthology of Plays, African Women Playwrights, Alice Childress: Selected Plays and Telling Our Stories of Home: International Performance Pieces by and about Women. She coedited Contemporary Plays by Women of Color (ATHE 1996 Outstanding Theatre Book Award) and Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women. She is a senior editor for Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance.

In 1995, Perkins co-curated ONSTAGE: A Century of African American Stage Design at New York’s Lincoln Center. In 2016, she served as theatre consultant for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) inaugural exhibition Taking the Stage. She is the recipient of numerous research awards, including the Ford Foundation, Fulbright, United States Information Agency (USIA), New York Times Company, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) and various University of Illinois awards, including University Scholar. She is the recipient of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Career Achievement Award in Academic Theatre and the USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in both Education and Lighting.

Perkins has traveled to over forty countries as both designer and lecturer. She has served as board member/advisory for USITT, URTA, Definition Theatre, and The History Makers. In 2007 she was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. She received her BFA in Drama from Howard University and her MFA in Lighting Design from the University of Michigan. In 2021 she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan. Perkins is Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011-2018). She continues to free-lance as a designer.

Tristan André Parks, Movement Director

TRISTAN ANDRÉ PARKS: MOVEMENT DIRECTOR

Brother. Sun. Black memory cultural worker. Lover of his community. Tristan, an alum of the MFA Professional Actor Training Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a Southern multi-hyphenate artist whose credits include PlayMakers Repertory Company’s “Ragtime,” “Life of Galileo,” “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Leaving Eden,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Crucible”. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Amen Corner” and most recently Public Works’ “As You Like It”. Tristan is overjoyed to be premiering his solo performance work “They Do Not Know Harlem”. For where two and three are gathered. Peace and love to all.

Damon Fordham, Historian/Dramaturge

DAMON FORDHAM: HISTORIAN/DRAMATURGE

Born in Spartanburg, SC on December 23, 1964 to Anne Montgomery and was adopted by Pearl and Abraham Fordham of Mt. Pleasant, SC the following year. He received his Master’s Degree in history from the College of Charleston and the Citadel, and his undergraduate degrees at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He is currently an adjunct professor of World Civilizations, United States, and African-American History at Charleston Southern University and The Citadel in Charleston, SC and has taught US History and African-American Studies at the College of Charleston. He was a weekly columnist for the Charleston Coastal Times from 1994 to 1998, as well as the author of The 1895 Segregation Fight in South Carolina (Charleston: History Press, 2022), Mr. Potts and Me (Charleston: Evening Post Books, 2012) Voices of Black South Carolina-Legend and Legacy (Charleston: History Press, 2009), True Stories of Black South Carolina (Charleston: History Press, 2008) and coauthor of Born to Serve-The Story of the WBEMC in South Carolina in 2006.

Research and articles by Mr. Fordham appear in the books Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition by Joyce Coakley, South of Main by Beatrice Hill and Brenda Lee, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African- American Folklore for the University of Missouri Press, Cecil Williams and Sonny DuBose’s Orangeburg 1968, and The Malcolm X Encyclopedia for the University of Southern Mississippi Press in 2001. He has also commented on history and storytelling for numerous radio and television programs in the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. He was on a ten-day tour of Senegal and Gambia, West Africa, with fellow educators where he spoke to students at the University of The Gambia in May 2022. He has also appeared on the NBC LX News and CBS Sunday Morning in 2022.

He conducts a walking tour called “The Lost Stories of Black Charleston”, and has received a citation from the South Carolina House of Representatives for his work in education, historical research, and social justice. He was also on an educational fact-finding visit to Senegal and Gambia, West Africa, where he toured the Slave Port at Gorre Island and spoke to a class of students at the University of Gambia in Banjul.

His motto is Educate yourself to lead yourself, for if you wait on others to show you the way, you will wait for a long time.