'Unheard Voices' speaks powerfully

LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 11/19/2012, 4:19 p.m.

What inspired you to do "Unheard Voices"?

Last year, while visiting the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, it struck me that all of the engravings on the slabs in the libation chamber that marked the dead only indicate the burial number, whether the dead person was a male or female and an approximate age range. Don't get me wrong--just to know that much represents an extraordinary amount of work done by archeologists. However, these engraved slabs have a familiar look, like headstones, which makes what's missing all the more conspicuous--names! Dedications! The kind of things we take for granted when we go to any cemetery. But here, there's no way to know exactly who anyone was.

Inside the museum, there's a wall listing all the burial numbers as well, and here some of the crypts have contents listed--a bead or an object that has survived three or four hundred years. But nothing specific is known about a single one of these human beings.

As an artist, I was struck by this anomaly. So much is known and yet so little is known. They were unearthed as if in a cry to be heard. The archeologists had done so much, but I still wondered who these people were. How did they live? Who did they love? What work did they do? Who schemed, gossiped, loved, tended wounds, traded goods or held their loved ones?

Where the archeologist's work ends, the artist's work begins. Each one of these 419 souls had a real life, and I felt it was my job to help give them voice. Given when they lived, they were probably very likely near voiceless, so hundreds of years later, we owe them a voice.

With the help of the two grants, I was able to commission 17 writers to research the burials and create monologues following specific guidelines. These writers became the ASP Writers' Collective. In order to participate, each writer had to agree to attend tours and lectures arranged with the staff at the African Burial Ground as well as do independent research. Ranger Cyrus from the burial ground was a fountain of information, and the writers loved him so much! We also used the archives at the New York Historical Society to do research. Shawn Rene Graham, our dramaturge, was wonderful at collecting and sharing research material but not overwhelming the writers.

I then asked each writer to choose three burials that interested them with a brief outline, then we asked them to write for one of their choices, to make sure we had an even distribution of men, women, children, old, young and no duplicate burial numbers.

For more info, visit www.americanslaveryproject.org.