Winner of the 2015 Gloria Ann Barnell Peter Playwright Competition
Written by Merlaine Angwall
Directed by Marianna Raho
Made possible by the generous support of the Peter Family
Blackbirds’ Garden is set in Mount Pleasant Female Prison, a neighbor to the infamous Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. It is based on one chapter in the true story of Eliza Farnham, a life-long reformer, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights. In 1844, relying on her connections with Horace Greeley and other reformers, she took a job as Women’s Warden at Mount Pleasant. There, following in the footsteps of British Quaker Elizabeth Fry, she adapted modern notions of rehabilitation including kind treatment, education, and the use of music. Despite the reforms she was able to make, Farnham’s liberal views brought her into conflict with other staff members. Ultimately, the prison’s trustees came to regard her as dangerous, and in 1848 they succeeded in driving her out. As one inmate puts it, ”You want to stay here and they force you out and I want to get out and they force me to stay.”
The cast of characters in Blackbirds’ Garden consists of young inmates, prison staff, Eliza’s husband, and members of the prison’s Board of Inspectors. Theatre goers interested in mid-19th century attitudes towards women, incarceration, and in particular the incarceration of women, will find Blackbirds’ Garden enlightening. Many of the themes of social justice to which Eliza Farnham devoted her life are found in our own local history which involves the Quakers, Women’s Rights activisim and Thomas Mott Osborne, a native son of Auburn whose prison reform efforts in the early 20th century propelled him to the forefront of the movement. The full-length play will be staged as a readers’ theatre.