Review: Five Row: Growing Up with Reynolda

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Review: Five Row: Growing Up with Reynolda

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Introduction by Phil Archer, Director of Public Programs | Review by Kim Mayes, ZSR NPIP Community Outreach Intern

This summer the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation funded a Community Outreach Internship to support the production of Five Row: Growing Up with Reynolda. The play was a partnership between Reynolda House and Peppercorn Children’s Theatre, representing a leap forward in telling the story of the estate’s employees, a majority of whom were African American, during the years of Jim Crow. Kim Mayes, a rising junior at Davidson College, helped to promote the play and make meaningful connections across the Winston-Salem community, leading to sell-out performances and a reunion of sorts with several members of the families whose homes lined the shady lane of the community of Five Row. We are grateful to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for its support and to Kim for her conscientious and thoughtful approach to sharing these stories.

[Pictured: Kimberly Mayes, Anna Rooney, Eugenia Parent, Anthony Parent, Elizabeth Chew, Harry Poster, John Bowhers, and Phil Archer]

The story of Five Row has become important to me during my internship at Reynolda House Museum of American Art as the ZSR NPIP Community Outreach Intern in Public Programs. I was excited to finally see the play “Five Row: Growing up with Reynolda” after many days combing through oral history transcripts, books, thumbing through photos, and trying to piece together the history, and recreate Five Row, the small village for some of the estate’s black employees and their families. I found that Five Row embodied a story of the people, and “Five Row: Growing up with Reynolda” is a play for the people.

The play begins in the 1940s with Mary Reynolds Babcock writing to Harvey Miller to prepare the house for a visit. It shifts to the 1920s with Mary Reynolds exploring her childhood and future role as lady of the house. Mary has a conflict trying to find her place in the family and accept her role as lady of the house. Harvey Miller, new to Five Row, also has a conflict with adjusting to life at Reynolda and accepting his role at the house during a time of segregation. I think the play achieves one of its goals depicting a part of the overall experience and the story Reynolda.

However, as play titled Five Row I would have expected more about the people of Five Row, their contributions to Reynolda, their story. The play begins with Mary Reynolds Babcock reflecting on her experiences at Reynolda. The play continues with a point of view that focuses primarily on Mary, her development and associations with the house. By seeing Five Row through Mary's eyes, the audience's perception of Five Row is limited. Viewers are removed from engaging directly with the people of Five Row and are forced to hear a second-hand story. Mary’s understanding of Five Row only goes as far as from the short time she enters Five Row alone and the time she leaves with Dick. This is not a play about Five Row, it is a play about the Reynoldses contrary to a statement in the play’s advertisement of  Five Row: Growing Up With Reynolda as “an original play about the residents of Five Row, the community for African American farm workers at Reynolda during the early 20th century, and the roles they played on the estate.” The play simply did not accomplish the goal set out in the description.

Many of the play’s most powerful moments that conveyed the history of Five Row and historical context seemed lost to the audience. In one scene, Flora Pledger walks onto the stage after tending to the Reynolds family at the house, apparently going home. The light reflects off her face, and it is a very beautiful moment. Flora Pledger did have an affinity for the place and says in oral histories that  "Reynolda was kinda like country. I thought it was the best place I'd ever seen. I loved it," but she also admits that it was difficult work. Working for the Reynolds family required long hours of labor, without room for family and other luxuries. In Flora Pledger’s oral history she admitted that she was often unable to go to church and left her child with other mothers at Five Row.  Few women at Five Row had jobs at the house.  The majority of the domestic staff at the house were business- class blacks that lived in the city. This moment did not reflect the complex relationship that Five Row residents had with the house.

The  first question that I heard many people- including my own family- ask after exiting the play is “What happened at the end?” It was not clearly established that he was majordomo, or head butler of the property.The panel after the first play did an outstanding job of filling in the details of Five Row and the relationship to the house, for the audience. Without a discussion to contextualize the story, the play seems to fall flat because the script fails to sufficiently tell the history of the place with nuance and historical context.

Overall, this play accomplishes a beautiful story of two children growing up, but I left with a wish for deeper more complex conversation about the context and conditions of life at Reynolda. I wanted to see that conversation come to life on stage. This is a play that we can learn from, and I do believe that this play has the potential to start conversations and impact Winston-Salem’s understanding of our shared history. A part of Winston-Salem's history comes alive in this play, with the potential for so much more to be told.

Peppercorn Children’s Theatre shares the sentiment that more can be told via this statement issued following the play: “It became clear on opening morning that Five Row could have a life beyond this summer...Peppercorn hopes to expand the experience of Harry Poster’s new play Five Row: Growing Up with Reynolda and will be seeking the best format to do so in the coming year.”

Reynolda House is already making strides to make the history of Five Row more visible including an online gallery of Five Row residents, now on its website. The staff are also planning to share the oral histories of black employees in an interactive exhibition of the estate's history, to be unveiled at its centennial in 2017-18. Just two ways in which Five Row can continue to be explored, but great additions to solidify and revisit the history of Five Row at Reynolda.

Kim Mayes is from Winston- Salem, NC. She is studying Anthropology at Davidson College, Class of 2016. She aspires to work in the nonprofit field and is driven to think critically about who we are, where we come from and how we can move forward. Kim loves community outreach. She wants to pursue research that looks at the intersections and implications of art, education, and development. Ultimately, she hopes to present her findings in creative ways to the public. The last song she listened to was Kwabs Last Stand and her top five favorite movies are: The Intouchables, Holiday Heart, The Lion King, 42, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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