Prudence Crandall comes to life in new play

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Canterbury - posted Mon., Nov. 4, 2013
Brenda Jacobson is Prudence Crandall in the play, 'Dear Prudence.' Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

In the mid-1990s, Cindy Wolfe Boynton wrote a story for the New York Times on the renovation of the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury. The story of the young woman who opened up a boarding school for African-American girls three decades before the start of the Civil War inspired Boynton. 

“I loved Prudence,” she said. She didn’t have an opportunity to write much about Crandall in the Times story, but she wanted to. “I did save her in my memory bank and I put a copy of the story in my 'to write' file.”

Almost 20 years later, her play, “Dear Prudence,” made its world premiere at the 2013 United Solo Theater Festival in New York City in October. It joined 120 other one-act, one-performer entries at what’s billed as the largest international one-act festival.

It was only fitting that Boynton and actress Brenda Jacobson brought the play to the First Congregational Church of Canterbury on Nov. 3. The play and the 25th annual fall tea celebrated the woman who is the state’s official heroine. The story resonates still, according to museum curator Kaz Kozlowski. “It’s a story about courage, independence, women and education,” she said. 

Boynton and Jacobson have recreated an elderly Crandall looking back over the milestones in her life. In her monologue, she speaks to her deceased husband, her brother and her first black student, Sarah Harris. As she does, we learn about her thoughts on the Bible, the Constitution, civil rights and suffrage. We learn something about her background that led her to strike out on such a brave endeavor. We hear her thoughts, some of her fears, and the resounding conviction that, given the chance, she’d do the same thing over.

Crandall and her students paid a price for their convictions. The school was targeted. It’s windows were broken. The well was poisoned. Community members were so outraged that they convinced representatives to pass the Black Law in the Connecticut Legislature, a law aimed at keeping blacks from attending Connecticut schools.

Crandall’s school was short-lived. She moved, married, and eventually went to live in Elk Falls, Kansas, where she is now buried. Connecticut has not forgotten her. The Prudence Crandall Museum will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. Besides holding annual teas, exhibits and tours, the Friends of the Prudence Crandall Museum have started holding lecture series. “We wanted intellectually challenging events,” said FPCM President Jo Ann Hauk.

For Jacobson, playing a real-life heroine was daunting as well as fascinating. “All I could do was think about her determination and courage,” she said. She just wanted to do the right thing, and that meant equality for everybody.” 

For Boynton, getting the character right meant sharing the inspiration she felt when she came across the story. “I want to write about people who inspire others,” she said. “I feel strongly about civil justice, education and unsung forgotten heroes, especially those from our own back yard. It all led back to Prudence.”

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