Culture At Large

1619: Looking Back to Move Forward

Ted Williams III

Recently, I won a grant from the Illinois Arts Council to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of African-Americans. 1619: The Journey of a People is a new production that premiered at Kennedy-King College in Chicago this summer. Told through the multi-disciplinary tool of musical theater, it strives to convey a sizable piece of this history, while taking an unflinching look at America’s current conditions. In doing so, my hope is that it also honors our biblical call to remember.

The process of creating a theatrical production was daunting, even though this was my second major musical effort. The first, TORN the Musical, took two years to fully develop. Through both processes, I learned to follow artistic inspiration, wherever it led. Some scenes and songs were written in the middle of the night, others in my office, still others while driving in my car. I spent countless hours in a self-imposed solitary confinement, to the consternation of my family. The creation of 1619 included five months of writing, two months of pre-production meetings, and three months of rehearsals leading up to the premiere. My production team auditioned and interviewed a host of people before choosing those most likely to help effectively tell this story. We eventually settled on a talented group of musicians, dancers, singers, actors, music producers, crew, and light designers.

From the onset, I wanted to explore history in a way that infused contemporary issues. Often when people think about a historic project, they assume a clear chronological approach that respects tradition and limits of time and space. This was the very opposite of what I hoped to accomplish. 1619 immediately opens with “The Journey,” a hip-hop and African musical fusion that purposely uses dance to tie centuries of people together through the power of rhythm. It then moves into a look at the transatlantic slave trade through a piece called “Captured.” Audiences would expect to then be carried directly through the next 250 years of American slavery. However, as a writer and artist, predictability is a cardinal sin. Therefore, the piece jumps immediately into a contemporary space, where a modern character conveys a comedic connection to this difficult story.

From this point, there are various modern personalities that pop in and out of the story. Each one brings their own unique perspective and artistic form of expression. Interspersed through their pieces is historic information about the Antebellum South, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a host of legendary historic figures who’ve pushed the needle towards justice in the United States. It was important to me that the show moved out of the traditional slavery story quickly to consider the continued fight for justice and equality. As a result, we tackle important questions about what it means to be an American historically, as well as controversial current issues like the NFL protests and police brutality. Comedy, music, and storytelling are the balm that makes these difficult discussions more palatable. While I attempted to treat issues with respect, I also felt called to find points of humor and celebration designed to allow audiences an opportunity to exhale. Musically, I wanted a reflection of multiple eras and the emotional conflicts that accompany them. Therefore, the selections include blues, jazz, hip-hop, funk, traditional djembe drum pieces, and a Negro spiritual.

The number that is most personal to me is a spoken-word piece I perform entitled “After the Dream.” Living in the Trump era has been a source of anxiety for many people of color. Erroneously, I assumed that the United States had moved past much of its historic xenophobic rhetoric and actions. However, the rise in these kinds of expressions in the current culture has left art as one of the only safe forms of political expression. “After the Dream” is an artistic statement that ties the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King to the unapologetic battles waged by today’s racial equality movements.

Our finale, “Chains are Gone,” is a triumphant celebration of this 400-year journey. It reminds us that on the other side of trial lies greatness. As a conflicted person of color, who has seen the blatant hypocrisy of the United States yet who still takes great pride in American citizenship, I wanted to end this work on a positive note. Music has always given hope even through perilous times. “Chains are Gone” is a declaration that our best days are still in front of us.

I wanted to explore history in a way that infused contemporary issues.

The ancient Jewish community was told to constantly remember its collective heritage. In the Old Testament, this concept appears over 130 times. God’s chosen people established elaborate festivals, holidays, and memorials to commemorate their passage out of slavery and the trials they endured. The stories of 400 years in Egyptian bondage and 40 years of wandering in the desert were diligently passed to each generation. In the modern era, following the Holocaust, those of Jewish heritage adopted the phrase “zachor” as a rallying cry. It means to remember, to never forget the past, as its imprint on our lives serves as a guide to the future.

Many Americans want to forget the past, assuming that discussions about the impact of slavery only serve to fuel further division. Recalling the journey of this nation is hardly an effort to divide or perpetuate victimhood. Rather, it is an admonition to America—a reminder of its promise to all people. It helps us to understand the source of our present conditions and to have the capacity to address them honestly and holistically. This is hard work. It requires empathy, humility, patience, and courage.

Those who are called to a biblical model of living are uniquely qualified to lead this charge. Directives for atonement were explicitly laid out in Scripture. Atonement was never achieved by ignoring the past; rather, it was the result of acknowledging the past and taking deliberate restorative actions. Christians are not called to forget the horror of the cross. Recalling its pain is the fuel needed for a comparable heart response. We love because Christ loved us, willingly providing the ultimate sacrifice. The United States needs the same kind of proactive reaction to the legacy of slavery and discrimination. This need for a national reckoning with painful history represents a special opportunity for Christian witness. I hope 1619 can be a part of that.

1619: The Journey of a People will be presented at Kennedy-King College Theater on Oct. 12 at 2 and 6:30 p.m. It will also be at Elmhurst College Nov.7; Hampton University Nov. 15; and the DuSable Museum Nov. 16. Learn more at

Topics: Culture At Large