by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona has some impressive success stories, but James Stovall’s might take the cake. For starters, Stovall escaped slavery during the Civil War. In the late 1800s, at a time when he was one of the only black men in Winona, Stovall became a respected businessman and a board member of that era’s equivalent of the chamber of commerce.
“That would be a big deal today,” let alone in the 1800s, Alfred Wilson said. Wilson is the director of “Mister James and Mister Jeff,” a historical play by Winona playwright and retired judge Margaret Shaw Johnson that will premiere next month. Recalling how Stovall survived slavery, taught himself to read, and started a business in Chicago only to lose it in the Great Chicago Fire before moving to Winona, Wilson marveled, “How many times can you start over from scratch? That made me look at him and say, ‘This is a great man here.’”
“That’s a good story,” Wilson said of Stovall’s success. “But Jeff is a tragic American story.” The play’s other titular character, Mr. Jeff, is based on a man who lived in Winona around the same time as Stovall. Brief newspaper articles from the time make up the bulk of what little information exists about him. The articles refer to him simply as “Old Jeff” and often seem to mock him. Real-life Jeff was homeless when he first came to Winona. Winonans at the time viewed him as crazy, Johnson stated. “Mister James and Mister Jeff” envisions Jeff as a former slave suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “He is homeless, but people have to feel something for him,” Wilson stated. “I don’t care about anything else in this play, but the audience has to feel something for him.” Jeff’s troubling experience in Winona stands in stark contrast to Stovall’s prosperity and prestige. When the two cross paths, what will they see in each other?
“It’s the story of two men who are trying to transition from slavery to a new life in Winona,” Johnson said of her play. “It’s the story of their successes and their failures and their efforts to help each other through it.” Referring to her title characters, she continued, “I consider them refugees.” After all, Johnson noted, “The South had declared itself a separate country, and they were fleeing war and bondage.” It raises questions that are still relevant, she stated: “How did we receive these refugees fleeing war, poverty, and bondage then, and how do we receive them now?”
“I want to make sure the audience gets a feel for what it must have been like for a black man to come from slavery to success in a small town like Winona,” Wilson said. “It was not an easy time to be a black man in Winona,” he added. Wilson described coaching some of his actors on saying the N-word as part of the play. “I want this audience to feel — not just see it, but feel — what that must have been like,” he said.
Stovall’s remarkable story inspired Johnson to write the play. “It just shocked me that there was a former slave in Winona who had become prosperous and successful,” she explained. It was surprising, too, to learn how far back Winona’s black history goes, Johnson said, adding, “I think Winona should know that, and I don’t think many do.”
As for Jeff, Johnson went looking for him. “There’s very little known or knowable about him,” Johnson said. Snippets from old newspapers drew Johnson into Jeff’s life and made her imagine what his backstory might have been. Johnson said she spent 10 years researching the history of her characters and tried everything she could to find out more about Jeff, but most references to the man do not even include a last name. “I finally realized you’re not writing a history here. You’re writing a play. You don’t need to know his genealogy … Whenever you’re writing a play like this, there’s a whole lot that you don’t know and can’t know,” she said.
“I’ve never been naive about this project. I’m aware of concerns about cultural appropriation,” Johnson, who is white, stated. “People in many cultures are getting tired of other people telling their stories.” Johnson said she sought advice from several mentors of color and recalled one telling her, “You’re right. You’re going to be criticized, but you should write it anyway because if you don’t, no one will, and these are stories we need to hear.”
Thanks to funding from the Winona Community Foundation, the Winona Foundation, the Elizabeth Calendar King Foundation, and others, all of the ticket proceeds from “Mister James and Mister Jeff” will be donated to the restoration of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre. “It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s important for the arts community to show their support — that they’ll help as much as they can,” Johnson stated. “We may not be able to contribute millions, but we will dedicate our talents and our energy,” she added.
The play is also an opportunity to showcase the Masonic Temple Theatre. “Mister James and Mister Jeff” will be the first theater production in the city of Winona’s newly renovated venue, with improved stage equipment and new seating. The play will feature some of the Masonic’s original three-dimensional backdrops, as well, which have been newly restored. The play even makes clever use of the Hades scene backdrops, pitchfork-wielding devils and all.
Johnson said the lobby of the theater will feature a display of artwork by Bill Traylor (1853-1949), an artist who was born into slavery and lived through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The Smithsonian American Art Museum describes Traylor as “one of the most important American artists of the 20th century.”
“Mister James and Mister Jeff” will be presented at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre in Winona on May 16-18 at 7 p.m. each evening and on May 19 at 1 p.m. A panel discussion on race and refugees will follow the play. The performance is not recommended for children under 10. Tickets are available at Chapter 2 Books in Winona, the Winona County History Center, or online at misterjamesandmisterjeff.brownpapertickets.com.