The Trial of Phillis Wheatley is a play written by Ronald B. Wheatley. Directed by Stephen Levine, it is based on a literary and historical story of the first published female poet of African descent in America. It is set in Boston, MA, which was under the Constitution of England in the eighteenth century, before the American Revolution. As the story goes, a seven-year-old girl is captured from West Africa in 1753 and transported to America on a brig named Phillis. She is rescued on purchase from a slave trader by the Wheatley couple, John and Susanna, who have teenaged twins named Mary and Nathaniel. They name the child Phillis and raise her as a member of their own family. Tutored at home, she turns out to be a prodigy and very soon develops expertise in understanding the Bible and composing poems. When her mistress approaches publishers with the collection, they reject the manuscript because they do not believe a slave girl had written its contents. They suggest that the poet should be put on trial before a jury to prove it.
With this background, the play has two acts. In the first, we see Phillis still recovering from consumption and Mary helping her rehearse the trial. John is conversing with Nathaniel. They discuss the political unrest in the city involving members of the jury and the revolutionary movement for freedom from the “Crown and Parliament.” Candlelight creates the appropriate ambiance, and the dialogues are very well written. The second act begins the next morning with an interesting conversation between members of the jury, which is followed by an engaging dramatization of the trial held on Alexander Pope’s day. It takes place in the Governor’s Council Chamber Room of the Common House. The members of the jury share common interests. They are ministers of the Gospel, merchants, poets, and educated men who nonetheless have differences of opinion on doctrine, politics, and slavery. The proceedings are meant “to get to the truth of authorship and the question of the author’s loyalty” to the Crown.
I found it difficult to believe that the publishers in Boston could go to the extent of making an agreement with John to have Phillis tried by the jury. It looked improbable that eighteen of these prominent men from the city would unanimously decide to sign a joint “Attestation” that she was the sole author. It was an unreasonable condition for publishing her poems. Perhaps they were not serious and wanted to make a fool of the young slave girl. I was annoyed by their proposal. However, it is heartening to know that the Wheatley family had confidence in Phillis’ abilities. I appreciate them and all the performers who took their place in the drama. They did a marvelous job.
I greatly admire Phillis and her mistress, Susanna, for their courageous performance in front of the all-white eighteen-member jury consisting of men who were older than her. The young poet’s recitations touched my heart, and I found her actions during the trial, such as kneeling in prayer, genuine and impressive. Indeed, her verses are comparable with the writers of classics and works of poets like Alexander Pope (who is often mentioned in the drama). The dialogues are excellent and sometimes very hilarious. The link between Phillis’ poetry and the political scenario is unique to this play. As a slave, she symbolizes the bondage of the province itself. However, I am intrigued by the ambiguous relationship between the Wheatley family and the Crown in England.
What I least liked about the drama is that it is slow-paced. The trial is prolonged, but the curtain falls at the right moment. Additionally, the book will benefit from a round of professional editing. I found a few errors that were distracting. Otherwise, the script is excellent. People of all age groups will find The Trial of Phillis Wheatley entertaining when enacted on stage. It is enjoyable even to read in the book and has educational value for youth. There’s nothing that will disturb children. After taking all this into consideration, I am happy to I rate it 3 out of 4 stars.
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