At the end of her roughly 30-minute soliloquy on the life of former slave Clara Brown, storyteller Momma Kemba slowly ditched the heavy period clothing she donned during her performance, revealing a dashiki shirt underneath those layers of struggle.
She then unraveled a kente cloth and draped it over her shoulders while reciting Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” — that anthem of African American womanhood.
“They may write us down in history with their bitter, twisted lies; they may trod us in the bitter dirt, but still, like dust, we rise.”
Kemba, who travels around the world to perform her reincarnations of black female historical figures like Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, was at the Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield, in Austin on Feb. 14 to resurrect the story of Brown for an audience of around 60 people.
Brown was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. She married another slave named Richard in 1835 and they had four children, but after 17 years, the family was separated, each member sold to different owners, at auction.
“That word auction freezed my heart,” said Kemba, channeling Brown’s dialect. “From [all] around, [the white folk] come … singing, dancing, fighting, haggling — and selling human flesh. They having such a high time, they pay no mind to us suffering.”
Brown was sent to a plantation in Kentucky, where she would toil until she was freed at 56 years old. She would then head west to Colorado, where she would work as a cook, a laundress, and a midwife in one of the state’s pioneering gold-mining towns.
After the Civil War, Brown gathered her savings and liquidated her investments in order to travel the country on an odyssey to relocate her youngest child, Eliza Jane, the one child she figured could be alive after such a lengthy passage of time.
After an unsuccessful trip to Kentucky to locate her daughter, Brown brought back to Colorado more than a dozen relatives. She would eventually find Jane several years before her death at 85 — the same year she was inducted into the Society of Colorado Pioneers for her role in the state’s early history.
Kemba’s Brown is both factual and interpretive. The dramatist infuses Brown’s post-slavery odyssey with a viewpoint that isn’t entirely frozen in the past or simply a static reaction to historical facts — dates, events and key people. In retelling Brown’s story, Kemba recovers a particular history from its conventional gatekeepers and lets her own particular voice — one varnished with a post-1960s cant of black pride, defiance and power — come through as well.
Various historical events in Brown’s life, such as a massacre in Colorado, are retold from the former slave’s own perspective and moral vantage point. While recounting a surprise attack and resulting massacre of Indians by a volunteer infantry, Brown calls into question its standard historical interpretation.
“[They] kill 500, most women and children, stealed 600 ponies, then they swagger back to Denver, having a wild celebration,” she says. “Some people think they heroes …”
Kemba said she began portraying Brown after an organization in Kentucky approached her to reincarnate Brown at the state fair.
“I think they felt my other women were a little too provocative, too hard, and they wanted somebody who did not fight against the system, technically,” she said. “But they were really surprised when they heard the script, because what I did was take all the news I read during Brown’s time and decided what she felt about it and told them.”
Those moments of interpretation make for some of the most poignant points in Kemba’s soliloquy — which is interspersed with Negro Spirituals and Native American songs.
“Man just progress in newfangled horse cars and telephone, it just too bad man ain’t progress in his soul fast as he progress in his thangs,” she says, before again calling into question the value system that, as Brown notes, villainized slain Native Americans while making heroes out of their killers.
“A group of railroad hoodlums attack Chinese folk what done living in peace, minding they own business … they beat and kill most of them and take all they goods. It go down in history as the Chinese riot. That appear mighty strange to me, since it not the Chinese what done the riot.”
Luke McGlynn, who sits on Third Unitarian’s board of trustees, said Kemba’s impersonation resonated with him more than if he were reading about the history.
“The first-person perspective, that personal perspective, is not like a history lesson or a lecture,” he said. “This is what people, as individuals, experienced and that has a lot of value and it makes it a lot more interesting.”
“It took me a minute to get into what was happening, but I really learned a lot,” said Julie Samuels, of Oak Park. “Kemba conveyed it in such a way that you understood the evil we perpetrated here — we meaning white people.”
“It wasn’t my relatives. They came here in 1897 and were called dagoes and Polaks. It doesn’t matter who you are—if you don’t fit into the Anglo Saxon mold, you’re going to be seen as a second-class citizen. But we’re still fighting this fight. During this [presidential] election, people are saying they want to put up fences to keep people out. We’re the first aliens here. [White people] came here uninvited and we’re destroying the planet on top of it all. Momma Kemba really helped me make those connections.”