'Worcester Revolution of 1774' honors area's early patriots Sept. 7

By Richard Duckett
Telegram & Gazette
Thursday, September 4, 2014

James David Moran's play "Chains of Liberty" will premiere Sunday as part of "Worcester Revolution of 1774." (T&G Staff/Christine Peterson)

There was "something in the air" in Worcester on Sept. 6, 1774. Revolution.

Passage by British parliament of the restrictive Massachusetts Government Act in May 1774, one of the "Intolerable Acts" issued in response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, created a local reaction that wasn't especially tolerant of the aims of the Crown. September 6 was the day that 4,622 militiamen from 37 towns of Worcester County marched down Main Street in Worcester and shut down the Crown-controlled county courthouse. Nine months before Lexington and Concord, and for the first time in the American colonies, British authority effectively had been overthrown.

"In many ways the American Revolution began in Worcester County," said playwright James David Moran. "You can also argue the American story begins in Worcester County because we began the quest for liberty and equality."

The premiere of Moran's new play "The Chains of Liberty," which depicts the revolutionary events in Worcester via four people living here, will be part of "Worcester Revolution of 1774" on Sept. 7, a free daylong festival of activities celebrating Worcester County's role in starting the American Revolution. The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at various locations in and near Institute Park in Worcester and includes re-enactments, period craftsmen, colonial militia, stories, music, children's activities and bus tours. Renowned historian Ray Raphael, author of "The First American Revolution," will be on hand. "There's a lot gong on. It's like First Night-style of activities," Moran said.

"Worcester Revolution of 1774" has been put together by a consortium of historical and cultural organizations and interested individuals. The story of what happened here in 1774 has tended to be overshadowed by other events. "People in the community were saying we should do something to raise awareness and tell this," Moran said.

"The Chains of Liberty" will be performed at 1 and 3 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Worcester Area Mission Society, 6 Institute Road.

Moran, who is also director of outreach at the American Antiquarian Society, has written historical plays before such as "Portraits Come Alive" in which some of the subjects of the paintings in the Great Hall of Mechanics Hall step forward and tell their stories.

Militias from all over Worcester Country converged in Worcester Sept. 6 and forced the shutdown of the county courthouse, nearly a year before the skirmishes in Concord and Lexington. "Worcester Revolution of 1774" will honor that dramatic confrontation Sunday with a festival that will include re-enactments, period craftsmen, colonial militia, music, children's activities and bus tours. There will also be a muster Saturday in Uxbridge. (T&G File Photo/Steve Lanava)
"I think one thing is to always start with the historical evidence and figure out what the story is from that evidence" Moran said of dramatizing history.

"You have to get this information across to the audience." On the other hand, "You want to avoid a lecture in small clothes." In this case, the events are themselves dramatic. "There's all this strife we've got to tell."

The four main characters in "The Chains of Liberty" were all real-life people: Timothy Bigelow was a blacksmith and a leader of resistance to British authority; Timothy Paine was a wealthy loyalist; Winslow Worcester was Paine's slave; and Mary Stearns was a widower who ran a tavern on Main Street.

There's also a lot we don't know about them, and Moran creates certain situations for dramatic purposes, but "I don't think I've gone against the historical record," he said.

By having a teenage Winslow Worcester, who is black, working (on loan from Paine) at the tavern and talking to Mary Stearns, Moran adds two sometimes ignored dimensions to the 18th-century debate on liberty. Five different petitions from slaves seeking freedom were sent to the government in Massachusetts from 1773-1775; women had few rights. "What is going to happen to people who are not going to get their freedom?" Moran said.

The play has several settings including the tavern, a meeting house, Paine's house and Bigelow's shop.

There will be audience interaction as characters state their case in town meeting speeches and propose resolutions. Audiences can say "huzzah" ("yes") or "fie" ("no") just as town meeting members did 240 years ago.

Human events would unfold to show once again that truth is stranger than fiction. Moran noted that Bigelow went on to become an American Revolution war hero but died in a debtors prison in 1790. "We don't completely understand why that happened." It is possible Bigelow may have had some kind of post traumatic stress and/or dementia, Moran said. Paine, on the other hand, continued to prosper and was even elected to the state legislature. "It's complicated. Just like today. Sometimes I change my opinion," Moran said. It is known that Winslow Worcester obtained his freedom and married a Leicester woman.

The cast of "Chains of Liberty" rehearses recently: from left: Marci Diamond, Bill Mootos, James Turner and Trinidad Ramkissoon. (T&G Staff/Christine Peterson)
The fact that 4,622 militiamen marched down Main Street and shut down the courthouse indicates that sentiment against the Crown was strong. The population of Worcester in 1765 was 1,478, Moran said.

In the play "by having the resolutions read from all over the audience you'll have the sense of this widespread movement," he said.

Revolts followed in every county in Massachusetts outside of Boston in the fall of 1774. In the spring of 1775, Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Gage wanted to move against Worcester, where arms and powder were now being stored by the patriots. However, he was warned by his spies not to attack because the patriots were considered too strong. Given intelligence that the rebels had been stockpiling weapons at Concord, Gage ordered troops to march there, with historic repercussions.

"The Chains of Liberty" has an Equity cast of actors and is directed by J. T. Turner, an actor and director who Moran has worked with before. Funding for the production has come from MassHumanities.

Moran is hoping that "The Chains of Liberty" could tour schools with a curriculum to go with it.

"But first we've got to make it work for September 7," he said.

Contact Richard Duckett at Richard.Duckett@telegram.com