‘Written by Phillis,’ the story of an extraordinary woman

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 5/18/23

The world premiere of "Written By Phillis" at Quintessence Theatre is a one-act play about the life of poet Phillis Wheatley.

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‘Written by Phillis,’ the story of an extraordinary woman


The world premiere of "Written By Phillis" at Quintessence Theatre is a one-act play about the life of poet Phillis Wheatley. Developed by New Classics Collective in Chicago, the play is shrouded in irony, beginning with the fact that it was not written by Phillis Wheatley at all.

The play chronicles Wheatley's life to its liking. She was kidnapped in Africa at the age of seven and sold into slavery. "Phillis" was the name of the slave ship that brought her to America, where she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston in 1761.

The Wheatleys recognized her talent. Their older children became her tutors. A precocious child, Phillis learned to speak English in 18 months and became fluent in Greek and Latin a few years later. She came to admire English poetry and by age 13 was writing her own.

One irony in "Phillis" is that this enslaved person was given opportunities denied to other enslaved people. An early poem displays her conflicted feelings:

"Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:/ Once I redemption neither sought nor knew./ Some view our sable race with scornful eye,/ "Their colour is a diabolic die."/ Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,/ May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train."

"My Pagan land!" screams the contemporary, nameless graduate student (Kira Player) who jumps away from the stage. The student grows less distressed as she learns more about the poet's life. Wheatley won emancipation at age 20. She became insistent about abolition but remained a complicated woman who did not fit anyone's mold.

As Phillis, Asia Rogers is a winning presence, lithe and erect as she drifts on and off the stage. (She studied physical theater at Accademia dell'Arte in Arezzo, Italy and it shows.). Never obeisant, Phillis is sure of her gift even as she exudes sympathy for the feelings of those around her.

The show is elegantly mounted by director Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Except for Asia Rogers, all actors play multiple roles. They sit around a simple wooden platform. Overhead, a screen shines videos establishing place and powerfully setting the mood. As actors drift on and off stage they sometimes feel like apparitions. At its best, the production is dream-like in capturing a distant past. (Light design by David A. Sexton, set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge).

For nearly an hour, a succession of scenes rivet your attention. Inside a Boston courthouse David Mitchum Brown, Joshua Kachnycz and William Zielinski comically portray town notables who cross-examine Phillis, attempting to prove that a Black enslaved person could not have written the attributed poetry.

"Phillis" reaches its dramatic high point in a spellbinding scene in London, England. Phillip Brown exults in the role of Ignatius Sancho, an emancipated enslaved person who is proud, amusingly egotistical, indignant and playful by turns. He implores Phillis to become a forthright abolitionist, then locks horns with Nathaniel Wheatley (Joshua Kachnycz).

Phillis is swayed by Sancho, but not entirely won over. She becomes an abolitionist but returns to Boston to care for the dying Susanna Wheatley (Carolyn Nelson), her de facto "mother." These are strong scenes that underscore Phillis' conflicting values and you wish the play ended there.

The ironic truth of "Written by Phillis" is that everybody "uses" her. The white abolitionists use her so they can feel good about themselves. The Black abolitionists use her to embody their pride and rage. Caring as the Wheatleys are, they never entirely give up on the idea that Phillis is a material "asset."

Quintessence Theatre is at 7137 Germantown Ave. "Written by Phillis" runs through June 4. Tickets are available at 215- 987-4450, or at quintessencetheatre.org