Conner Prairie presents ‘Rhodes Family Incident’

From left, Devon Ginn and Tori Renee perform in the “Rhodes Family Incident.” (Submitted photo)

From left, Devon Ginn and Tori Renee perform in the “Rhodes Family Incident.” (Submitted photo)

By Mark Ambrogi

At the north entrance of Westfield’s Asa Bales Park, a Rhodes Family Incident historical marker sits.

It relates to the story of the Rhodes family who escaped from their slave master in Missouri in 1837 and settled in Roberts Settlement, an area consisting of free black families, six miles north of Westfield. Singleton Vaughn tried to reclaim his slaves, but the Rhodes family resisted and neighbors assisted. Vaughn took it to court, but lost because he bought the slaves in Illinois, which was a free state.

That’s the backdrop for “The Rhodes Family Incident,” a play at Conner Prairie. The play will be presented at 1 and 3 p.m. May 27 and June 24. The 30-minute play, which debuted earlier this year on Martin Luther King Day, will return in the fall with performances for schools.

The play is part of the Giving Voice initiative, which is has a focus on African-American presence in Indiana history.

“We are trying to give voice to African-American history, that is really what we are doing with the project,” said Catherine Hughes, Conner Prairie’s director of interpretation. “We got a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. The first year we put out a call for people to put in for a playwright in residence here.”

That led to a partnership between Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre, which helped get the word out about the initiative. A committee eventually chose Crystal V. Rhodes as the playwright in residence.

“She found a few different stories to write about and one of them was about a family named Rhodes, which is ironic because it’s no any relation to her,” Hughes said. “She became fascinated by the story of the runaway slave family.”

Rhodes frames the story around two African American college students who are living in Atlanta, who are back home in Westfield visiting family. They get stuck in Asa Bales when their car breaks down and stumble across the historical marker.

“They break the fourth wall and talk to the audience and explain growing up in Westfield and what it felt like to be black there and how isolated they felt,” Hughes said. “Then they learn the story, it makes them think twice. They’re shocked that in what they considered to be white Westfield that there were abolitionists.”

Several Westfield homes sheltered slaves as Westfield was a stop of the Underground Railroad.

The two performers in the play are Tori Renee and Devon Ginn.




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