‘One Moment of Freedom’ tells the dramatic story of the formerly enslaved MumBet
From left, Kristal Dickerson, John Combs, Catherine Bruhier, Diane Linder, Michael Robb / Ryan Rowles.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A new play now enjoying its world premiere production at Theatre Forty tells the story of Elizabeth Freeman (c. 1744-December 28, 1829), commonly known as Bet or MumBet.

In brief, here’s a sketch of her life. Marion Zola’s play leaves out many details and invents a few others, but the basic outline forms the plot.

Bet was born into slavery: A farmer in Claverack, N.Y., named Pieter Hogeboom owned her. Hogeboom’s daughter Hannah married the lawyer, landowner, businessman, and community leader Col. John Ashley of Sheffield, Mass., a town not far over the state line, adjacent to Great Barrington. As a wedding present, Hogeboom gave Bet, then around seven, to the new couple, who raised her, not quite as “one of the family,” which they liked to believe, this being the “benign” slavery of New England, not the slave labor camp South. For example, they never taught her to read and write.

As Bet grew into womanhood, she formed a romantic attachment with Jim (so named in the play), a fellow Black man, a farmer in the area. She claimed a kind of marriage. And she had a daughter, Lizzie (in the play), or Little Bet as she is remembered. The two women remained in the Ashley household until 1781. Jim went off to fight in the American Revolutionary War but was shot and killed for the nation’s freedom—a tragic irony that the prosecution will bring out in its argument in court.

From left, Catherine Bruhier, John Combs, Katyana Rocker-Cook, Jeffrey Winner / Ryan Rowles.

Neighboring Vermont, not yet a state in the union, formally banned slavery in its constitution. But this question was handled rather more subtly in both the Sheffield Declaration, which predated the Declaration of Independence, and the  Massachusetts Constitution, Article 1. John Ashley helped to draft the Sheffield document, which provided philosophy and language for the Mass. Constitution. Bet was present in the house when meetings and dinners were held, where the principles of citizenship were openly discussed.

Bet heard the debate, which became formalized as Article 1:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Bet questions this language. What is meant by “all men?” Did that mean only males? No, the lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, Ashley’s close friend and fellow lawyer, reassures her. That means all mankind.

Armed with that argument, she recruited Sedgwick to represent her in Brom and Bett v. Ashley, heard in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. (Brom was another of Ashley’s slaves, but the play cuts that character.) Sedgwick’s law partner was Tapping Reeve, founder of the first law school in the nation, just over the Connecticut border in Litchfield, Conn. They made the claim that the provision that “all men are born free and equal” was tantamount to abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. Lawyers for the defense argued that slavery was tacitly legal everywhere in the new United States, and slaveowners were legally entitled to protection of their property.

The jury ruled for Bet, who instantly made history as the first African-American woman to be emancipated under the Massachusetts Constitution. Sedgwick (1746-1813) went on to become a judge, a U.S. Senator (1796-99), then a Representative, becoming Speaker of the House (1799-1801).

The play takes some liberty with the story, heightening the drama by having Tapping Reeve (1744-1823) betrothed to John Ashley’s daughter Alison. In fact, he had married Sally Burr in 1771—Aaron Burr’s sister.

When the jury voted in her favor, she was now entitled to choose a last name for herself. Bet and her daughter chose the name Freeman. She later remarried, and her daughter married as well, giving Bet grandchildren. Buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Mass., which was Bet’s last residence in her own home, Freeman was not only the sole non-Sedgwick buried in the Sedgwick plot, but the only person of color in this otherwise segregated cemetery. Her tombstone was inscribed:

ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th, 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.

W.E.B. Du Bois, photo by James E. Purdy, 1907.

Mention of African Americans in Western Massachusetts inevitably prompts the possibility of a connection to W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868. Indeed, Du Bois did make such a claim—that Freeman had married his maternal great-grandfather, “Jack” Burghardt. The chronology for such a marriage, never recorded, doesn’t match up, however. It may have been the younger Freeman, Bet’s daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt. But there is at least some anecdotal, if not provable relationship between the two families.

“I would have taken it”

The title of Marion Zola’s play derives from a direct quote by MumBet, used effectively in the drama:

Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman—I would.”

Zola has written books, a memoir, episodes of popular television shows, a movie script for television, and a PBS documentary series Shelter Me, which she also co-produces. One Moment of Freedom is her first full-length play for the dramatic stage.

As mentioned above, the plot largely follows the actual story, with some artistic license. Col. Ashley’s daughter is made into a larger character than history might justify, though an incident where she burns Bet’s arm with a hot poker (so much for Bet’s status as “one of the family”) turns out to be the provocation for Bet’s claim for freedom. Alison later, we are told, grows into a more sympathetic person, but if this is so I would have liked to see how this change came about.

Bet exemplifies her refusal to work any longer as a slave in the Ashley home by spending some days in the local jail as a “deserter.” Part of the legal argument in her favor comes from Sedgwick’s pointing out to the court that when a slave commits a crime they are tried as a person, not as a piece of inanimate “property.” That point apparently carries more weight with the jury than the defense’s claim that “millions of dollars’ worth of property are at stake.”

The playwright unfolds the play as something like a docudrama featuring Bet herself (Catherine Bruhier), daughter Lizzie (Kristal Dickerson), Col. Ashley (John Combs on opening night, July 27, filling in on-script for the originally scheduled Daniel Leslie called away on a sudden emergency), Alison Ashley (Katyana Rocker-Cook), Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick (Michael Robb and Diane Linder, alternating with Mandy Fason), Tapping Reeve (Joe Clabby), defense attorney David Noble (Jeffrey Winner), and incidental roles performed by David Westbay and Michael Kerr.

As a theatergoer, and as a critic, I don’t mind at all that Zola—who attended the opening night performance—has taken certain liberties with the facts. What I did come away with was that in her deliberate devotion to telling an expository story strictly set in its era, she leaves little room for the imagination, for the lyrical, for the poetry of these memorable historical characters. Where is the art? Could Bet, Lizzie, or Sedgwick not have been granted a moment out of the action to dream, to soliloquize, to shine as a human being (and as an actor) with an elevated passage of reflection?

Zola devotes substantial attention to MumBet’s skills as a healer, midwife, and caregiver, even in some instances as possessing more useful gifts than the trained medical doctors of her time. Even if it entailed some inventiveness on her part, it might have increased the believability of this character trait if the playwright had suggested how she obtained this wisdom. By pure instinct and intuition? Tutelage by some local Native or African-American master of healing arts? After all, she entered the Ashley household at age seven, so where and how did she gain her legendary competence?

Linda Alznauer directs this otherwise impressive world premiere, produced by David Hunt Stafford. The set design is by the company’s dependable, efficient Jeff G. Rack, with costume design by Michael Mullen, and stage manager Ryan Rowles. It runs through Aug. 27, at Theatre Forty, 241 S. Moreno Dr., in the Mary Levin Cutler Theatre, Beverly Hills 90212. The venue is on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Free parking is available in the lot beneath the theatre. To access parking, enter through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives.

Promotional copy for the show reads, “As the United States is currently experiencing a reckoning with its racial past, One Moment of Freedom couldn’t be more timely.” I’d agree, but I’d add that one way or another our country has been “reckoning with its racial past” from the moment the Conquistadors and the Pilgrims stepped foot onto the lands of the Western Hemisphere. The lawyer Sedgwick receives anonymous death threats in the mail hoping to intimidate him from pursuing the case. The timeliness to today’s MAGA goons could not be clearer.

Detail of the Elizabeth Freeman statue in Sheffield, Mass.

At several points, musical interludes both vocal and instrumental enliven the production. The actors give their all to this project, and it shows. Clearly, this is a play the company deemed worthy of being seen, and it certainly is. In fact, for its intimacy and professionalism, a theater lover can hardly beat the experience of a Theatre Forty production, truly one of the L.A. theater world’s hidden treasures.

The play lifts up the historical figure of Elizabeth “MumBet” Freeman and helps to restore her to public consciousness. In August 2022 the Sheffield Historical Society unveiled a statue in her honor. A celebration of Freeman’s role in the long march to freedom will be celebrated on August 20, 2023, in Sheffield. For further details see the Historical Society website.

I can only wonder when a U.S. postage stamp will be issued in her honor. She deserves one!

The play is performed Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 2:00 p.m.(Aug. 13, 27) and at 7:00 p.m. (Aug. 13), Tues. at 7:30 p.m. (Aug. 15 only), and Weds. at 7:30 p.m. (Aug. 2, 9, 16). For tickets and further information call (310) 364-3606 or go to the Theatre 40 website.

An informative, almost half-hour-long video on Elizabeth Freeman can be viewed here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.