JH is a series of vignettes illuminating the experiences of African Americans during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The characters include not only John Henry (Monteze Freeland) and his wife, Polly Ann (Delana Flowers), but also a narrator named Lucy (Linda Haston), a rich industrialist named Engineer (Mark Staley) and a white working man named Mechanic (Tom Driscoll).
JH was written by Anya Martin (who also directed) and devised by a team including her, Freeland, Flowers and others. Unusually, nearly all the show’s dialogue and monologues are drawn verbatim from either the “Ballad of John Henry” or texts — history books, slave narratives, newspaper articles — whose copious source material is named aloud. Much of John and Polly Ann’s dialogue is just a few lines of lyrics, repeated in different contexts. Engineer quotes heavily from an 18th-century technical manual, with properties of physics becoming harrowing metaphors for human power relationships.
John and Polly love, suffer and strive; Lucy reflects; Engineer lectures (and profits); and Mechanic labors. The sourced language gives it authority, along with the pleasure of hearing how the lines change in different mouths and contexts — how “die with my hammer in my hand,” for instance, might be a joyous song for a man finally and suddenly free to labor for his own bread. The singing, by Freeland, Flowers and Haston, will alternately rouse you and break your heart.