Making the Play


GOLDNER: We have long told stories of our Founding Fathers as champions of democracy. Yet some of the barriers to social justice we live with today were created during the founding. The Democracy Project is an original 45-minute play about our founding stories told mainly from African American, Native American and female points of view, and it could not be more timely.

The Democracy Project follows a modern-day narrator through the history of Federal Hall, probing the choices of our Founders and how their actions still reverberate through America, many years after “We the People.” She flips the script on a history usually reserved for the Founders, making history come alive with the struggle and humanity of people often left out of our founding stories.

Through the eyes of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by Martha Washington, we are given a fresh view of Federal Hall’s important firsts: the inauguration of George Washington; the introduction of the Bill of Rights; the 1790 Quaker petitions against the slave trade; and the first U.S. international treaty, made with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Why did Federal Hall assemble a whole team of playwrights?

This project came together organically. It was playwright Bruce Norris who suggested we invite a bunch of playwrights to imagine what a fresh telling of our history could look like. Our meetings at Federal Hall turned into a de facto artists’ residency. We held some 20 television-style writers room meetings as the artists wrestled with how these stories could be interpreted and brought together in an entertaining way.

Having a diverse team of artists allowed us to dig into the relevance these stories have in our lives today. The group immediately locked onto the contradictions between the ideals expressed by the Founders, and the reality experienced by those not represented at Federal Hall. They chose Ona Judge to lead the audience through the play. She was enslaved by the Washingtons and has a unique, first-person published account* of her experiences during this period.

How did you recruit so many award-winning playwrights for this collective enterprise?

They were attracted to the idea of writing about our history at this particularly fraught moment and working together. Now, with debate intensifying over American monuments and their meaning, they saw an exciting opportunity to make Federal Hall the place where we could broaden the conversation, not only about what this historic place can be, but about the important stories often left out of our shared American history. They were struck by the fact that many of the historic conflicts portrayed in the play are issues we are still debating to this day—and our audiences will see that too.

Quite a group to have in a room together! How did that go?

These writers are so original and so imaginative, they could talk about oatmeal and make it exciting. It’s a great group of passionate and accomplished artists. I was surprised at how differently each viewed the politics of today and our history. So, they had lots of disagreements and lots of laughs. They have come up with a play that brings forward the humanity and importance of people who had been lost to many of us. The play manages to be provocative and entertaining—and funny too.

Why is this play running at Federal Hall?

The Federal Hall Conservancy commissioned The Democracy Project as part of its vision to promote American democracy through the arts. The goal is to bring back the importance of Federal Hall as a forum for public discourse. Admission to the play is free and open to the public.

Each playwright chose a story from Federal Hall’s history and made it their own. The play is a unique work of public art for a national memorial—I don’t know of anything quite like it.

I can’t wait to see how the public responds to this play. So many of the issues we are dealing with right now have been debated right from the start. How much power should the President have? How can we protect the rights of the individual? What is the legacy of slavery? What is the legacy of treaties we made with Native Americans? So I think folks will be excited by how relevant Federal Hall’s history is to their lives.