“Liberty to Go to See” is a dramatic encounter with one hundred years in the history of Cliveden and the topics of slavery, indentured servitude, and women’s rights in America. Intended audiences for this public program were people from middle school and older who did not know of Cliveden or only knew it as a colonial house museum that was home to the Chew family until 1972 and site of a 1777 Revolutionary battle. Partners in the collaboration developed goals to involve young people telling the Chew’s slave-owning history and to consider history from different perspectives. The Chews were the largest slave-owning family in Pennsylvania and “Liberty to Go to See” presents Cliveden’s African-American history in dynamic ways.
Teenagers from Philadelphia Young Playwrights worked with Cliveden staff for ten months to prepare a script based on the Chew family papers related to slavery and human rights. Fourteen young playwrights from all over Philadelphia experienced Cliveden fully, opening the mansion each day and working with documents detailing the Chew family’s ownership of enslaved Africans. The writers workshopped scenes with the public, including with Chew family descendants. Philadelphia’s African-American theater company, New Freedom Theater, produced five performances of the play for Juneteenth 2014 that proved so popular that an extended run of fourteen performances was produced for Historic Germantown’s 2015 Juneteenth programming. A grant also allowed Cliveden to videotape key scenes for extended use on guided tours, and two members of the cast have joined Cliveden as interpreters, ensuring the project’s continued public benefit.
Each performance lasts 45 minutes and each scene relates episodes in Cliveden history where people are challenged to seek liberty, whether filing for divorce, running away, suing for freedom or contemplating suicide. The play’s title quotes a letter from Joseph, writing to Benjamin Chew for “liberty to go to see” his wife on another plantation. Producing a play inside the mansion was a curatorial challenge, but the immediacy of such provocative, site-specific content amid the actual architecture lent a powerful sense of “beingness” to the experience. Each performance is limited to twenty participants. The closeness of the participants to the actors made each show a unique, demanding encounter with American history.
Cliveden’s mission is to help people understand their shared history and motivate them to preserve it by providing access to the rich continuity of history and preservation in one community and family over time, and by offering knowledge about preserving our built heritage and its value. They implement this mission by preserving their houses, grounds and collections; by providing interpretive programming based on solid research; and by serving as a leader in the area of historic site management. Once preserved as a shrine to colonial history, Cliveden has used Chew family documents and the family’s history of slave-owning to become a forum for considering the how the past shapes all our lives. “Liberty to Go to See” used community input, education, and dramatic arts to craft interactive ways to discuss vital, yet difficult topics in history. It fit Cliveden’s mission of raising discussions, inviting dialogue, and encouraging continual recovery of the past in order to consider all the stories this site tells.