Thoughts on Toliver & His Very Great Grandson
This project begins with the story of Toliver Holmes, an African American man who escaped enslavement, served as a Union soldier in the 26th Regiment of Colored Troops, and settled in Delhi, NY (Delaware County) where he is buried.
Years ago, I learned about Toliver while researching local African American history at the Delaware County Historical Association (Delhi, NY). A white historian, Shirley Houck, had collected all sorts of incredible evidence of Black families that lived in Delaware County post-slavery. One of the people that stood out to me was Toliver. Accompanying the details of his life in Shirley’s archive was a photograph of Toliver as a younger man, seated in a chair: handsome, chiseled face, in a suit, stoic demeanor.
Throughout my work as a visual artist and community organizer, he has stayed with me. In fact, I have that photograph of Toliver posted on my studio wall—the patron saint of historical realities?
I’m not the only one thinking about Toliver. He has a great, great, great-grandchild, Kyle Bass, who walks this very earth and recognizes the importance of Toliver’s story—what we know of it. Kyle is a playwright and descendant of Toliver Holmes who uses historical characters in semi-fictitious ways to unpack issues around American history, identity, and structures of power.
Lucky for us folks in the Northwestern Catskills, Kyle has an ongoing relationship with the Franklin Stage Company (Franklin, NY) where he shared his powerful play “Possessing Harriet” in 2019. More recently, he has been commissioned by FSC to produce a play about two local historical figures, Toliver Holmes and Sarah Wakeman.
The new play is called “Toliver and Wakeman.” Over the weekend, Franklin Stage Company is offering readings of the work-in-progress as their season finale. FSC’s website describes the play as follows:
Set at the start of the American Civil War, “Wakeman and Toliver” dramatizes the Civil War experiences of two actual historical characters from two very different (and not so different) backgrounds. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a young white woman born in Bainbridge, New York, disguised herself as a man and mustered into the Union Army—the 153rd New York State Volunteers—using the alias Lyons Wakeman. Toliver Holmes was a young black man born into slavery in Virginia who escaped to New York, changed his name to avoid capture, and mustered into the Union Army’s 26th Regiment of Colored Troops (NY), later settling in Delhi, NY.
“In reality, their life paths did not intersect. But in my play, poetic license in service to a poetical dramaturgy will bring them into each other’s lives—the imagined jazz of shared experience,” said Bass. “Theirs will be a shared narrative drama and a drama of identity.” The play is an exploration of what two very different characters have in common, as each has escaped something they find untenable, and each has cloaked their true identity. Each lives in Delaware County, New York, before joining the Union Army; and each is looking to define freedom on their own terms.
I was able to attend the Friday night staged reading, which, even at this in-progress stage, was engaging, poignant, and beautiful. The characters have complexity that unfolds through dialog and shows their vast differences and common humanity all at once. I look forward to seeing where this production goes—the blocking, the music, the character development. Following the reading, the cast, director, playwright, and producers hosted a talk-back. It not only allowed them to fill in some of the elements that would be included in the full production, but it also allowed time for Kyle to invite feedback from the audience asking questions like: how did the play make you feel and what was missing?
Another reading will take place at Franklin Stage on Sunday, October 2 at 3:00 pm. Go if you can and be sure to stay tuned to FSC’s schedule of events so you don’t miss the full production.
Toliver & Wakeman: A Staged Reading of a New Work in Progress
Written by Kyle Bass
Directed by Adara Alston
Stage Managed by Isabel Mendoza