Award-winning playwrights offer a fresh view on America’s founding stories

THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT, written by celebrated playwrights Tanya Barfield, Lisa D’Amour, Larissa FastHorse; Melissa James Gibson, Michael R. Jackson and Bruce Norris, is a play for and about Federal Hall. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, composed the music. Based upon Federal Hall’s history, and commissioned by the Conservancy, this dramatic tour-de-force will premiere in Spring, 2022.

Theater in the Rotunda

The Federal Hall Grand Rotunda’s dramatic architecture provides the perfect backdrop for a theatrical presentation that brings new depth and context to the story of the founding of the United States of America.

The Making of THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT

An interview with producer Lynn Goldner

Artistic Consultant, Federal Hall

What is THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT about?

GOLDNER: When a Federal Hall tour guide doesn’t show up for work, unsung historical characters step in to tell their side of the story. They flip 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, an enslaved servant to Martha Washington, we are given a fresh view of these stories: the inauguration of George Washington; the introduction of the Bill of Rights; the 1790 petition against the slave trade; and the first international treaty, made with the Creek Nation.

We have long told stories of white male Founders 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 performance of our founding stories told from African American, Native American and female points of view, and it could not be more timely.

Why did you assemble a whole team of playwrights?

This artist-led project really 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 really dig into the relevance these stories have to the politics of today. The group immediately seized onto the contradictions between the lofty words of the Founders and the reality experienced by those not represented at Federal Hall. They chose Ona Judge, one of the few African Americans who has a preserved written record about her experiences during this period, to lead the audience through the play.

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

I think they were attracted to the idea of writing about our history at this particularly fraught moment and to the idea of 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 a monument 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 I think 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 really a great group of passionate and accomplished artists. And I was surprised at how differently they each viewed the politics of today and our history. So, they had lots of disagreements and also lots of laughs. And I think they’ve come up with a play that brings forward the humanity and importance of people who had been lost to many of us in history. The play manages to be provocative and entertaining—and even funny at times.

Didn’t Ona Judge run away from the Washington household?

Yes, it’s such an amazing story! Not only did Ona Judge escape from the most powerful man in the country, she beat the fugitive slave law and gave two published interviews—before the Civil War—saying, “I’m free now and choose to remain so.”

Judge was born at Mount Vernon and she served as a maid to Martha Washington. When Washington became president, he brought her to New York in 1789 and then to Philadelphia, when the capitol moved there in 1790. After living among free Blacks in New York and Philadelphia, Ona Judge wanted that life too. So, when she learned that Martha Washington planned to give her to her granddaughter when they moved back to Virginia, Judge ran away to New Hampshire.

The President pursued her for many years. She was discovered in New Hampshire, but refused to return at Washington’s request. When Washington sent a second man to bring her back by force, she was tipped off by New Hampshire Senator John Langdon and hidden by John Jack, a free black man in the state. (Interestingly, Langdon was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention; signed the U.S. Constitution and was serving as a U.S. Senator from New Hampshire at this time). Ona Judge married a sailor, had three children, and lived in New Hampshire as a free woman until her death in 1848.

When will the play open at Federal Hall?

We are getting ready to premiere the play at Federal Hall in Spring 2022 and then to bring it back again the following summer. As with so many other live productions, the coronavirus delayed our premiere.

I can’t wait to see how the public responds to this unique, dramatic experience. 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 this history is to their lives.