Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

John Henry Lives

The power of song brings a legend back to life.




Photos BY Renee Rosensteel

 

Anya Martin has a vivid memory of an elementary school music class. 

Martin, director, lead playwright and producer of “JH: Mechanics of a Legend,” opening Feb. 10 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture recalls a lesson in which the class was singing about John Henry, the steel-driving man.  According to folklore, Henry raced a steam drill to prove that machines weren’t better than men.

Although he won the race, it cost him his life.

“I was always drawn to the John Henry story,” Martin says, noting that her conservative and religious upbringing made her particularly interested in the idea that a person could live forever in song. 

Martin is founding artistic director and producer for the Hiawatha Project, and when she wrote down ideas for her first four shows John Henry was among them. 

The work song — which is what Martin likely heard that day in school — has different versions, but all tell the story of how Henry died hammering against a machine.

“When I first started researching I thought it would be a play on modern machines, or man versus machine,” says Martin, 36, of Pittsburgh. “I thought it would be about iPhones and technology and schedules, but then I started doing research.”

Early in the process, Martin read Scott Reynolds Nelson’s “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry,” which treated the ballads as primary sources in the context of oral history.

That complicated history of America makes the story resonate now. After Martin gave title character Monteze Freeland “Steel Drivin’ Man” to read, he says he felt compelled to portray Henry for the production.
 


 

“I read that, and it really opened my eyes to the environment,” says Freeland, 29, also of Pittsburgh. 

Students do not learn the whole story of the Reconstruction Era in school, he says. 

“I think that instead of placing emphasis on the man, I would place the emphasis on the time period. Let’s focus on the machine of the country working the way it was designed to work. Show young people the circumstances that he lived and how he fought through that. That’s more powerful than this fairytale or myth or legend that we are teaching them.”

​Freeland joined Martin in 2014 to plan and research “Mechanics.”

“It wasn’t the steam drill that killed this man, it was social machines, systemized racism,” Martin says, adding that it was “societal machines, such as systematized racism, the criminal justice system and unchecked capitalism during industrialization. 

“Working on this piece through the simultaneous acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement and continuing tragedies of police shootings has been incredibly moving and impactful and has shaped the piece immensely.”

The play uses mainly primary texts with only a few instances of plain speak.

“When I was reading all these initial sources and stories I was so moved by them I thought, ‘They have to be in the show,’” Martin says.

“I would say, ’OK, this character needs to say this now or that now,’ but as a playwright I was unable to write it. I had to go find it,” Martin says. “Some of the things are so outrageous you don’t want to believe them or so horrific you don’t want to believe them. You can’t look away from this.”
 


 

“When we first (performed the play) I had nightmares every single night,” Freeland says. “If you got through the day you probably experienced some form of torture.”

The torture of John Henry — in addition to getting arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a black man — Freeland says, still happens today.

“John Henry was the first African-American superhero, in a sense,” Freeland says. “Of course they know about abolitionists, but this man went above that, creating light. 

“You may not see the light, but you have to knock down those walls to get to the light and sometimes it will cost your life. 

“So powerful. We have to tell this story.”

Preview night  for “JH: Mechanics of a Legend,” is Feb. 9. The show runs through Feb. 18 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave. For tickets call 412-456-6666.  
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Hungry for Something Good, Pittsburgh? Where We're Eating in July

Lidia Bastianich Shares Her American Dream in a New Memoir

PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein talks to the celebrated chef, restauranteur, television host and author about grandparents, foraging and the plight of refugees seeking a better life in the United States.

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

The Homestead Artist with a Worldwide Reputation

Jesse Best maintains a presence in New York and Tokyo. But, he says, Pittsburgh has been 10 times better to him than any other place.

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Sprout Fund Passes the Torch

50 Pittsburghers to receive $1,000 Legacy Award to carry on the nonprofit’s vision.

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Pirates Pitcher Steven Brault has Pretty Good Pipes Too

The Pirates reliever sang the national anthem Tuesday night before the Bucs hosted the Brewers at PNC Park. It's worth watching, especially for his teammates' reaction at the end.

Crime in the South Side Has Fallen Dramatically

Illegal activity plunged along East Carson Street following several new security measures.

Fired by City Paper — Charlie Deitch Won’t Be Silenced

The former editor of the Pittsburgh alt-weekly is creating his own "more inclusive" publication.

Czechoslovakia was Forged in Pittsburgh

Rick Sebak details how the establishment of the European nation began with a meeting Downtown.

Brick by Brick: Legos Go High Art

Made entirely out of Legos, the sculptures on the display at the Carnegie Science Center’s new Scaife Exhibit Gallery range from the whimsical to the otherworldly.

Mike Chen, Dean of the Chinese Kitchen

The owner of Everyday Noodles looks to encourage more regionally specific Chinese food in Pittsburgh restaurants.

MultiStories: Real Estate – The Machesney Building

Visitors can still ogle the lavish marble and bronze interior crafted to appeal to the original owner's banker and stockbroker tenants.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

Comments

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

Reflecting on the loss of a person so many of us admired.

Comments

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Chef You Shan Pei comes to Pittsburgh after cooking in Flushing, N.Y. restaurants for 18 years.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

Looking to show off your Pittsburgh love? Get your favorite city printed on basically anything at these local shops.

Comments

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

When you're craving the real deal, these local spots consistently churn out the very best.

Comments


The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

In "Will Work For Views," the video artist and musician Weird Paul is a little bit Dr. Demento and a little bit Mister Rogers.

Comments

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

The relaunched entertainment complex in Harmarville is casting a wide net, with some success.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Comments

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk found out last August, in the wake of a six-hour surgery that removed 14 inches of his colon and “a tumor the size of my fist,” the severity of what he was suddenly confronting.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The documentary about Fred Rogers' work and philosophy inspires even more wonder about the television legend who called Pittsburgh home.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Toppers That Take the Cake

Toppers That Take the Cake

Over the traditional bride and groom standing on top of your cake? Try some of these different ideas for cake toppers.

Comments

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

This Pittsburgh couple is using their engagement photos to raise awareness about one of their most passionate causes.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

Paying homage to the restorative power of nature, this deep green shade is one to watch in the coming year. Here’s how to use it on your walls.

Comments

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

From furniture to wall art and beyond, these local makers created one-of-a-kind pieces for your home or office.

Comments