Here’s my most poignant play—and it’s perfect for celebrating Juneteenth! Based on actual slave narratives, Freedom for the First Time is historically-accurate, kid-friendly, and comes embedded with comprehension questions and historic photos. It’s the narrative of ten-year old Tyree, a slave during the time of the Civil War. Like many slaves, Tyree believes whatever her masters say. But when Tyree’s brother, Sweet Walter, arrives with a band of Union soldiers to tell her the war is over, she and her family experience their day of Jubilee, the day they know freedom for the first time. Pair it with Days of Jubilee, Patricia and Frederick McKissack’s exceptional non-fiction book about slavery and the Civil War, or try creating a podcast performance or Zoomer’s Theater play. (You can hear my 5th graders performing it by clicking here.) It’s available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront, and like all my plays, includes performance rights. Happy directing!
February is Black History Month! In addition to all the MLK plays featured in my last post, here’s more great reader’s theater that’ll make your black history curriculum stay with your students for years to come. Like nearly all my plays, these scripts have been previously published in places such as Scholastic News and Storyworks, so they’ve been professionally vetted to meet the highest standards. They also come with comprehension activities that are designed to be straight-forward and easy to use. And because I use all these plays and activities in my own classroom, they’ve been kid-tested. To preview or purchase, just click on a cover and you’ll be taken to my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.
The Girl Who Got Arrested tells the story of Claudette Colvin, the first person to be arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus. Claudette was a teenager at the time and was deemed “unfit” to represent the Civil Rights cause, which makes her story that much more compelling. Pair the play with Philip Hoose’s book Twice Toward Justice for even greater engagement. The Library Card, meanwhile, can be paired with original text from Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (for mature students) or the picture book entitled Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller (younger students). The right to possess a library card helps depict the value of reading. Box Brown’s Freedom Crate tells the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, the slave who mailed himself to freedom inside a wooden crate. This is particularly fun to enact on stage (see my post “Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month“).
My Jackie Robinson play is another especially fun play to enact on stage. It features a peanut vendor and a hot dog man narrating the story from the audience as they sell their imaginary snacks at a Yankees game. And don’t underestimate the significance of Jackie’s struggle to the Civil Right Movement. The sports world has historically set the tone for progress when it comes to social justice. Freedom for the First Time is about the end of the Civil War, the “Day of Jubilee,” when slaves knew freedom for the first time. I consider it my most beautiful play. Finally, Spies & Rebels does not include any African-American characters, yet it’s depiction of Pinkerton agents working to save Lincoln is a nice compliment to your African-American Month curriculum.
If you’ve never heard one of your students attempt a southern accent you must give Box Brown’s Freedom Crate a whirl this February during Black History Month. Ever since I wrote it for Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine back 1999, Box Brown has always been a favorite among my students. Consequently my class learns and performs it almost every year. Even if you’re teaching in the Southern U.S.—where the dialect might not be so unique—there remain many compelling reasons to teach with this play.
Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is based on The Autobiography of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was the slave who mailed himself to the North inside a wooden crate and lived—just barely—to tell the world about it. Why do kids like this play so much? The Deep South dialect of slaves and slave bosses is certainly one reason. So too is the large cardboard box we use as the main prop. It’s painted to look like an old-fashioned shipping crate and is just big enough for a moderately-sized fifth grader to climb inside. The student playing Henry disappears within it during Scene 4 and then discreetly exits while the curtains are closed. From there he appears to get battered as the box is tossed from wagon to train to steamer until it finally gets cracked open at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Henry then rises from his coffin only to quickly swoon away from exhaustion and dehydration. This is of course a dramatic moment in Henry’s true story, and one kids don’t soon forget.
There are sound academic reasons to enact plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate. For example, because kids are willing to read and reread their lines over and over again, Read Aloud Plays build reading fluency. The brain science behind this repetition suggests it actually forms the neural pathways that make reading possible. Read Aloud Plays are easily leveled and they provide the exposure to drama the new Common Core Standards demand. They also allow students to experience history “first hand,” which helps them to relate to people like Henry, to understand some of the heartache and suffering Henry might have felt. …Plus there’s still that whole southern accent thing.
Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to download a free preview of Box Brown or one of my other Black History plays. I’ve used every one in my own classroom, and because most have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest-assured they’re of the highest quality.
Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is suitable for 4th-8th graders and includes parts for from ten to twenty students depending on your needs. Hear Box Brown being performed by students by clicking on the “podcasts” tab, and to get the most out of your reader’s theater, be sure to download my free article entitled “Why Use Drama?” Happy directing!