In Paul Green’s original script for “The Stephen Foster Story,” there is a heart-rending scene in which the owner of Federal Hill, John Rowan Jr., orders that a slave be sent away and sold.
Aunt Charity, begs Rowan: “Massa John, don’t do it, don’t do it! Don’t send my Tom away. Dis is his home, his home!”
That scene, which is reflected in the words of “My Old Kentucky Home,” has evolved, from having Mary be the one who begs an overseer to spare her son Tom to last year having Mary be the slave who is to be sold and begs not to be separated from her family.
“It’s not comfortable to watch, and it’s really difficult sometimes to perform because you know this happened … whether it happened on those grounds or not,” said Angela Crenshaw, who played Mary in the 60th season of the outdoor drama at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
That scene is one of many things about how the play treats the African-American experience that has changed over time.
Sometimes the changes are intended to be less offensive and more racially sensitive.
Other times they’re intended to be more explicit about how horribly blacks were treated before the Civil War.
“The Stephen Foster Story” is historical fiction, not history, so Johnny Warren, managing artistic director, is open to artistic license.
“I will say up front that I don’t strive for 100 percent historic accuracy,” he said.
Warren, who has directed the play for 20 years, said one obvious way the play has changed is that, while only blacks play black characters, they may also be cast in other roles, such as elegantly attired dancers in the ballroom scene.
Michael and Annie Bolden, husband and wife, who have been part of the cast for more than 40 years, have been involved in many of those changes.
Michael remembers when characters in the minstrel scene wore blackface — not using makeup, because that wouldn’t have worked with the costume changes, but by wearing black masks.
“I happened to be one of those minstrel men in blackface,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I was black; I was still in blackface,” he said.
At the time, he was excited to be able to perform, but looking back on it now, the 65-year-old actor and musical director for the play and his wife wonder how people could not have found that offensive, even if it was intended to be accurate.
It was only in the 1980s that the minstrels stopped wearing blackface, and it was also in that decade that one of the lines of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state song, was changed to remove the word “darkies,” a racially insensitive term.
Bolden said the play changed the word to “people” before the legislature did in 1986. He thinks he only sang it the other way once.
“The way I looked at it, we were actually telling the story the way it was,” Annie Bolden said. “We didn’t want people to forget.”
Still, some of the scenes are still too painful for some people, especially African-Americans who lived through segregation and the civil rights struggles.
“When you do see African-Americans in the audience, my immediate reaction is: ‘I wonder what they think. How long are they going to stay?’ ” Michael said.
Annie said she has seen people get up and walk out, but it doesn’t happen as often anymore.
Michael knows there are many local black people who won’t go to the show because of what they’ve heard, but he would like for them to see for themselves and pay attention to the story, because the scene with Tom, or Mary, really is an indictment of slavery, and the songwriter Stephen Foster was someone who loved and cared for people of color, and that is evident in the play.
“The way we are doing this show, it affirms the African-Americans,” he said. “I think the music is absolutely beautiful, and the story is beautiful.”
While Stephen Foster was progressive for his time, Warren doesn’t consider him a hero. Other people were risking their lives to help slaves escape to freedom; he was writing songs about those enduring slavery.
“I feel he was inspired by the real heroes of the story,” he said.
So did the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who wrote of Foster and others like him: “They awaken the sympathies for the slave in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish.”
Warren said one of the first things he does when auditioning college students for the roles of black people in the play is have a conversation about the history of enslaved people in America.
“One of the most overwhelming things I always get back … is a sense of pride at the opportunity to tell that story, and that’s encouraging,” he said.