by Frances Edstrom, columnist
Margaret Shaw Johnson’s “Mister James and Mister Jeff” was the perfect inaugural play to showcase the newly and beautifully restored Masonic theater and drops.
The play is about two escaped slaves who settled in Winona during the Civil War. It is a wide-ranging look at the history of this nation, the history of Winona, the long-lasting effects of slavery on our society, and the lives of two men whose lives couldn’t be more different, but who were inextricably bound by their circumstance of birth.
Although from time to time stories would appear in the local newspapers about Mister James, or James W. Stovall, who came to Winona from Alabama via Chicago, little was widely known about his unique history until this play was written and produced. Research on Stovall was a nearly 10-year project for Shaw Johnson, and the play is filled with details of his life and the times gleaned from her work.
The play is also a love story, thanks to Shaw Johnson’s creative mind. James Stovall, who became a respected businessman in Winona, did, in fact, erect a building downtown with his name emblazoned on it. He did, in fact, own a fine restaurant, as well. And two sisters from Fountain City, Anna and Augusta, worked for Stovall in his restaurant. There is no historic evidence of a romance between Stovall and Anna but, in the play, a romance is imagined between them, and the real societal taboo against inter-racial marriage is explored. Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin ever enacted anti-miscegenation laws, but that is not to say that a marriage, or even public romance, between Stovall and Anna would have been met with approval from the majority of residents of the Winona area.
The character of Mister Jeff, who was a real person in Winona, but about whom little is known except that he ended up at the Poor Farm in Gilmore Valley, is given a history by Shaw Johnson, as well, and she uses him to explore the lasting deleterious effects of the brutality of slavery on escaped slaves.
All of this history and imagination was wonderfully brought to life on the Masonic stage by a superb cast. The director, Chicagoan Alfred Wilson, played the part of the homeless Mister Jeff so well that I had to remind myself that this person on stage was the same cordial, sophisticated man I had met socially a few weeks earlier. Mister Jeff’s torturous nightmares involving demons (as depicted in the newly restored Hades theater drops), being chased by dogs and men, who then whipped and beat him, were most disturbing. His gradual departure from reality to escape his past, as well as his new freedom in which he could never outrun cruelty and disrespect, were beautifully portrayed by Wilson.
Stovall was played by Henri Watkins, also of Chicago. His Stovall was meticulous, successful, kind, loving, and a proud and free citizen of the United States. Watkins deftly gave the audience glimpses of a man who, also, was pursued by demons, which he could mainly keep in check, but which overshadowed his entire life and determined his lonely future.
Joining the lead actors in fleshing out the story were several local actors whose performances were among the best ever seen on a Winona stage.
Lee Gundersheimer played a tone-deaf banker and mayor whose innate bigotry was disguised as concern for appearances in his increasingly important community.
Sam Scherrer gave his character, a local newspaper reporter named Pete, a chance to grow from an unsophisticated local to an empathetic and open-minded man who befriended Stovall.
The sisters, Anna and Augusta, were played by Emily Kurash Casey and Jenny Schmidt. They each embodied their characters with sympathy, love, and a certain apartness from the community because of their friendship — and in Anna/Emily’s case, love — of James Stovall, a man accepted by Winona, but never fully embraced.
There is no way of fully knowing the stories and minds of these two ex-slaves who lived in Winona so long ago. However, in the capable and creative work of Shaw Johnson, their stories are emotionally true depictions of what life must have been like for ex-slaves whose different circumstances helped determine their different fortunes.
Ultimately, though, she has envisioned sad and lonely men blazing a trail through the forest of an unfriendly society so that ensuing generations could cultivate it, or not. And those who inhabited that unfriendly society that these men confronted have similarly laid a path for future generations to follow, or not.