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Playwrights' work on Prudence Crandall to be staged at Nafe Katter Theatre

by Beth Krane - February 13, 2006

A rich chapter of Connecticut history will come to life on the stage from Feb. 23 through March 5, as the Connecticut Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Prudence.

The play, penned by a UConn professor and his wife, tells the story of Connecticut’s state heroine and early civil rights pioneer, Prudence Crandall.

Carlton Molette, a professor of dramatic arts and senior fellow of the Institute for African American Studies, and his wife, Barbara Molette, an emeritus English professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, are accomplished playwrights who wrote six works together prior to Prudence.

He says they were drawn to the story of Prudence Crandall and her early 19th-century school for girls in Canterbury when they moved to Connecticut more than a dozen years ago.

He recalls staying at a local motel while looking for a house near campus, and picking up a stack of brochures to familiarize themselves with the area.

“The one that really grabbed our attention was the one about the Prudence Crandall School,” Molette says.

“The big question for us was and still is, ‘Why hasn’t the story of Prudence Crandall attracted more attention in the state of Connecticut?’” he says. “How is it that so many of my students, who have gone through K-12 education in Connecticut, know so little about Prudence?”

One possible explanation is that Connecticut has not required state history to be taught in elementary and secondary schools for more than two decades, and Prudence Crandall was not named the state heroine until 1995. Another possible reason, Molette suggests, is that Prudence Crandall’s story spotlights a moment that was not one of Connecticut’s finest.

Crandall, a white Quaker, unleashed a firestorm of bigotry in the state when she allowed a black girl, Sarah Harris, to attend her private girls’ school in Canterbury in 1832. She had founded the school, attended by the white daughters of local gentry, in 1831.

After most of the white students withdrew, Crandall closed the school and reopened it as a school for black girls in 1833.

In response, state lawmakers enacted legislation known as the Black Law, which required schools to obtain local permission for educating black children. Crandall was arrested and prosecuted by her neighbor, Andrew T. Judson, for violating a law created for the express purpose of closing her school.

She and her students went through three trials, the last of which was dismissed by a judge, but she ultimately closed the school after 17 months, following violent attacks on the school, including a fire.

After closing her school, Crandall left the state and did not return even after the state legislature honored the courage and moral strength she had shown in taking a stand against prejudice by offering her a $400 annual pension.

Barbara and Carlton Molette review the script for their new play Prudence.
Barbara and Carlton Molette review the script for their new play Prudence.
Photo by Dollie Harvey

The Molettes researched the play extensively but say the most difficult part of the process was not immersing themselves in the history, but rather translating it into a compelling drama.

“The play had to be fundamentally personal and visceral, as opposed to the unemotional objectivity usually reserved for a historical narrative,” Barbara Molette says.

“It needed to be a personal story. The whole play is about a personal connection to Prudence. You have to like her. You have to connect to her or else the play doesn’t work.”

The 90-minute play also offered the playwrights the chance to show the characters of the Prudence Crandall story in more complexity than is typically found in a few short paragraphs in a history book, Carlton Molette says.

For example, Judson, the antagonist in the story, is actually a hero in the story of the slave ship, Amistad.

“Even within the context of the Prudence Crandall story, Judson wasn’t entirely a bad character,” Molette says.

“He initially was very supportive of Prudence opening a liberal arts school for girls and for him to be vocal about supporting that concept in the 1830s was very progressive. It seems his attitude just completely flipped when she began teaching black girls, in large part because of political pressures bearing on him.”

Prudence has been the subject of two workshops over the past two years as part of CRT’s Summer Play Lab, a program specifically designed to aid in the development of new works.

The Molettes have worked for three years with the director of the production, Tyler Marchant, the associate artistic director of the Off-Broadway theatre, Primary Stages, in New York City.

They also have worked closely with CRT artistic director and the head of UConn’s dramatic arts department, Gary English.

The cast includes Hillary Parker, a graduate student in the School of Fine Arts MFA acting program, in the lead role of Crandall. It also includes two professional actors from New York, UConn alumnus Ian Pfister as Judson, and Amber Gray, a graduate of Boston University; another MFA student in the acting program, Prince Bowie; and two undergraduate acting majors, Christina Jolley and Meghan O’Leary.

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