Footlights

Voices from the past emerge in Heritage Ensemble’s “Message from a Slave.”

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Pamela Shaw.
  • Pamela Shaw.

Margarette Joyner is a woman with many hats to wear. The actress, director, professor and founder of the Heritage Ensemble Theater Company is also an award-winning playwright.

Her play “Reflections of a Black Cowboy” won a Sycamore Rouge playwriting competition and last year her original play “Sweet Chocolate and the Seven Christians” was nominated for an Artsie Award last year. She also wrote Heritage Ensemble’s upcoming production, “Message from a Slave,” which she calls “a gift.”

Joyner wrote the play back in the '90s, she says, quite by accident.

“I didn’t intend to write this play. I was in a little apartment and I had read a couple of slave narratives. And the storytelling was just so compelling. One day I just started speaking this woman’s story.” Aware that something significant was taking place, Joyner grabbed her tape deck and started recording.

“It was the strangest thing I had ever experienced. Mattie’s story just came to me,” Joyner says, referring to the titular character in her one-woman play. “A couple of weeks later, I just started speaking her daughter’s story.”

The play, which takes place over the course of two acts, tells the stories and experiences of two black American women, in their own voices.

“The story is really about undying love,” Joyner says. “In the midst of all this turmoil and all of what they went through, the through-story is undying love and trust in God.”

Joyner says she’s looking forward to opening night, which will be the first time that she sees how director Shanea Taylor and actress Pam Shaw have interpreted her work.

“The reason I turned it over to them is because I trust them,” Joyner says. She hasn’t attended any rehearsals because she wants to respect their process by not interfering with her own ideas of how the play should look or sound. “I’m doing the costumes,” she says, “but I’m doing them from a distance.”

Pam Shaw, who plays both of the mother and daughter roles in the play, says that taking on this script has been a journey.

“It has taken me back to my roots as a storyteller,” she says. Shaw found the material daunting because it called on her to connect with her roots as a black American woman, as well. “It hasn’t been easy, to be quite honest, but it’s been worth the push,” Shaw says.

Joyner may be staying away from rehearsal, but she knows what Shaw and Taylor are going through, because she experienced it all herself back in her little apartment, when the story first came to her. “We feel like it’s our ancestors talking through us,” Joyner says.

“Message from a Slave” opens Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Pine Camp Arts and Community Center. Tickets cost $15.

Running: VA Rep’s “Airline Highway” closes Feb 12, “Grand Concourse” at TheatreLAB runs until Feb. 18, Swift Creek Mill’s “Death Trap” runs until Feb. 25, and Firehouse Theatre’s “The Boatwright” runs until March 4.

On Deck: HATT Theatre’s Bill W. and Dr. Bob opens Feb. 10, in addition to “Message from a Slave,” Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company, in partnership with Richmond Triangle Players, will also offer “Choir Boy,” this month, opening Feb. 22. Cadence’s “Violet” opens Feb. 18, and Virginia Rep’s “Dancing Lessons” opens Feb. 24 at the Hanover Tavern.

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