On August 18, 1916, five members of the black community were lynched in Newberry in front of a mocking and cheering crowd. They were the friends, family and wife of Boisy Long, a Newberry man accused of stealing a pig and killing a deputy sheriff in an altercation at 2 a.m. There are different accounts of the events. But members of the Dennis family – Mary, Jim, James and Bert – are also known to have been killed in connection with Long. Weeks later, Long was hanged to similar applause from thousands of spectators. The six that were lynched are known as the Newberry Six.
During the weekend, NEW BAY, a play directed by UF professor Ryan Hope Travis, broke a long-standing silence surrounding the tragedy – not by replaying it, but rather by celebrating the lives lost.
The name of the piece is a new take on famous jazz singer Billie Holiday’s 1939 song about lynching: âSouthern trees bear strange fruitâ¦ Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze.
âFrom ‘strange fruit’ to new berries,â said E. Stanley Richardson, poet laureate and actor from Alachua County who wrote and performed on the play. Richardson explained that after the tragedy, hope could still flourish. As if symbolic of that, the play was produced by the Hippodrome Theater, which operates in a historic downtown building that was once the Gainesville courthouse where Boisy Long was ordered by an all-white jury to hang out in front of his doors.
The play immediately aroused the interest of the public. Shortly after the trailer released on YouTube at the end of last month, all five screenings at the Hippodrome Theater, November 5-10, were sold out.
After the opening night performance, a crowd of about 30 stayed for a community conversation on Alachua County’s journey to truth and reconciliation. Janis Owens, a local historian and the author from “Hidden in Plain Sight: A History of the Newberry Mass Lynching of 1916” was also present.
Owens told the story of the Newberry Six, speaking of the resilience of Boisy Long and Dennis’ family members and others being lynched by the mob on August 18. Owens said that after a seven-minute deliberation by the all-white jury, Long was on death row and being held in what is now the basement of the Hippodrome Theater. A crowd of Gainesville residents tiptoed on the porch to watch his 10-minute execution.
“The only thing more sinister that something like this is going on,” she said, “is something like this that goes on in silence.”
Brittany Coleman, audience member and leader of the local Equal Justice Initiative Trauma-Informed committee, said the strength of the play was how it focused on life, not death.
“I was quite ready to see a play re-enacting lynchings,” she said. “But I was surprised when they shifted gears and focused on them as people and not just as lynched victims.”
A direct descendant of the Dennis family, US Navy veteran Warren Lee Sr., also spoke.
âI thank you all from the bottom of my heart,â he said.
Collaborative local effort
The play was a collaborative effort between a dozen writers and actors funded by the University of Florida Racial Justice Research Fund, a $ 400,000 commitment to equity and inclusion.
Director and co-producer Ryan Hope Travis said he hopes the live-action format will allow audience members to see themselves in the characters and understand the depth of commitment needed for reconciliation.
âThat’s why we do theater in the first place,â he said. ” We see each other ; we’re so forced into it because something in this story struck a chord with us.
The work of Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, lecturer in African-American studies at UF, has become his muse. His research into the history of Alachua County’s violence against black Americans, including the tragedy of the Newberry Six, helped spark the county’s movement toward reconciliation and remembrance.
âThis story has been in the community for over 100 years,â said Travis. “But it was his work that really helped bring the conversation to the forefront.”
Travis said he wanted to focus on who the Six were in life instead of the violence they suffered in death; their stories would no longer exist only in the black and white text of a dated newspaper.
He turned to friend and actor Ryan George, who is also a UF alumnus, to link his show with the college and encourage other black members of the theater community in the UF to join the project. George, a member of the Hippodrome Theater Company, said he was working to comfort former UF students who had been the victims of racism before the university began its own truth and reconciliation initiatives.
George, actor and co-producer of the play, believes the series could not only be an opportunity for UF to recognize its past, but also to encourage current students to connect with the larger community in Alachua County.
“I think, hopefully, it allows them not to use the place but to be a part of it, even if they are only there for a few years, to actually invest, to care about what is happening. ‘has gone, to show a level of empathy, âhe said.
Travis found an important connection to the Newberry community through actor and co-producer Richardson, who grew up in Alachua and discovered the Newberry Six lynching as a child.
Richardson felt deeply committed to uplifting the stories of the victims because of his personal connections to their descendants. His first cousin got married into the Long family, he said, and he played high school football with members of the Dennis family.
Richardson said portraying an individual who has already lived was an emotional process, especially when the ensemble toured historic places in Newberry, including the old prison where the victims were held before their deaths and their graves behind it. Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church in Jonesville.
Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said the play aligns with the efforts of the Alachua County Community Memory Project and the Equal justice initiative promote justice and combat historic inequalities throughout the county.
Marlowe has walked the road to justice since being elected in 2017. He said that a 2019 trip at the National Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, marked a pivotal moment in recognizing Newberry’s past, and he believes NEW BERRY is another step in the right direction.
“I hope they come away having a chat,” he said of the audience members’ experiences. “I hope they come away with a little more understanding, I hope they come away with a little more compassion.”
As for the piece itself, Travis hopes it will have an ongoing impact and spawn new artistic productions.
“Maybe there’s a one-woman show about Stella Young [Longâs wife], maybe there’s a short film on their love story, maybe there’s a longer documentary coming out on Boisy Long, âhe said. âBecause the truth is, so little is known about this event that we are the first artistic reflection of it, so we hope to plant a seed that can blossom into fruits and flowers – new berries. “