Online New Works Festival Kicks Off by Confronting Racism

“Not in Our Neighborhood!” tells the true story of the racist acts around one couple’s move to St. Paul’s Groveland Park in 1924
Photos of William (Billy) and Nellie Francis, plus the home they moved into in 1924.
Photos of William (Billy) and Nellie Francis, plus the home they moved into in 1924.

Not in Our Neighborhood!, which streams online August 7-13 as part of History Theatre’s Raw Stages: New Works Festival, begins at the funeral of one of its protagonists, William Francis—or Billy, as co-playwrights Tom Fabel and Eric Wood call him, just as his wife Nellie did. Billy died in 1929 at age 59 after contracting yellow fever in Liberia, where he was serving as the U.S. minister resident (essentially, as the ambassador) and investigating rumors of kidnapping and slavery. 

However, the play doesn’t focus on Billy’s success in Liberia. Instead, it focuses on the year that he and his wife, Nellie, moved homes from the St. Paul-Rondo neighborhood to Groveland Park. What should have been another example of the American dream ended up being an experience of racism. The neighborhood association voted unanimously to pass a resolution to bar Black people from the area and tried to provide money to persuade the couple to move somewhere else. Two crosses burned in their yard, and people roamed the neighborhood making ruckus to protest the move. 

Fabel first heard of the Francises after reading the 10-page story Paul Nelson wrote about them in the Ramsey County Historical Society’s magazine. Wood, a high school classmate and fellow community actor, recalls the conversation Fabel had with him: “He read the story and said, ‘I’ve been kicked in the stomach. This is what my neighborhood did to an African American couple, and they need to know they did it because it’s been swept under the carpet.’” 

Not only was the neighborhood’s racist past erased, but outside the archives of local newspapers and the work of other historians and academics, the community the Francises had lived in for so long seemed to have forgotten who they were, too. So the two St. Paul natives dived right in, telling the couple’s story in a community theater show that ran at the Landmark Center in February 2019. Then the History Theatre came knocking and asked if they could adapt it for the 2019-2020 season. It settled nicely into a late spring slot, in repertory with Not for Sale, a world premiere focused on the Twin Cities’ real estate redlining in the mid-1900s. 

A New Script

Throughout the process of both the Landmark production and this upcoming one, Wood wrote the Black characters while Fabel filled in the voices for the white ones. Wood says the original script of Not in Our Neighborhood! relied on the facts to pull you in, but workshopping with the History Theatre team had them diving deeper into the emotions and motivations of each character. 

In regards to Billy and Nellie’s relationship, Wood says he imbued some of their relationship with the models he had grown up with: his father, a maitre’d for the Great Northern Railway who, along with his whole circle of friends, so casually encountered racism on a daily basis; the dynamic his father had with his mother; and the village mentality that the neighborhood families raised him and the other youth with. “I guess I drew a lot of that and was able to relate that to Nellie and Billy,” he says. “Just listening to them and trying to come up with how Billy and Nellie would react—seeing it made that process a little bit more easy? More fluid?”

Both playwrights pulled from research about not only the Francises, but of the time. This new addition includes more references to the lynchings that were happening. While Fabel says that the History Theatre asked for more of the country’s historical racial tensions to be folded into the script in light of George Floyd’s death, there was no doubt it was on the Francises’ minds. Nellie, who was an activist and a suffragist, had penned Minnesota’s anti-lynching law following the 1920 Duluth lynchings, advocating for it and seeing it passed in 1921.

One More Workshop

Originally, Not in Our Neighborhood! was slated to begin March 25 on the History Theatre stage. Then COVID-19 happened, and the theater was left to recreate its season, coming up with the online series “Spilling the HT,” which brings in speakers related to present and past shows; streaming old shows; and of course, adding an additional and extended Raw Stages (normally it is held for a week in January).

“After the death of—the murder—of George Floyd, the playwrights and I and the director got together and had a conversation and thought, ‘Maybe we should relook at this play,’” says artistic director Ron Peluso. “The other play has already gone through a couple of workshops, but maybe we could give this another workshop and see what relevance we can draw from the remorse and anger and frustration—I’m sure Nellie and William Francis thought many of the same things.” 

The two "Not in Our Neighborhood!" promotional images: The first was used for the History Theatre's season overview, and the second was for its appearance in the Raw Stages festival.
The two “Not in Our Neighborhood!” promotional images: The first was used for the History Theatre’s season overview, and the second was for its appearance in the Raw Stages festival.

Courtesy History Theatre, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Because Raw Stages has a different design aesthetic than the 2019-2020 season announcement, gone was the play’s deceptively malicious graphic of a flock of birds on a telephone wire (despite the idyllic sky blue background, the two black birds were separated from the white ones). Instead, the promotional image is the ugly truth: a photo of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross. 

That searing image strikes at the heart of white complicity in racism, says Peluso, but the playwrights want to make sure the Francises’ remarkable lives are known for more than being survivors of systemic hatred. “It’s about the story of those remarkable St. Paulites, remarkable Americans. We want their life stories well known,” Fabel says. “The cross-burning incident was a horrible example of what happened at that time, and its echoes are going on throughout history with the segregated conditions of neighborhoods. … One of the recurrent themes that we were given by William Francis was that the problem with white people in dealing with Black people is that ‘they didn’t know us—if they knew us as good neighbors, good friends, good citizens…’ Segregation can directly contribute to that obviously. Segregated conditions of schools, of neighborhoods, prevent races from getting familiar with one another, contributing to the ongoing racism that we’re suffering to this day.”

The First of the Festival

Not in Our Neighborhood! (August 7-13) is the first play of the History Theatre’s second 2020 Raw Stages: New Works Festival. This is followed by Diesel Heart (September 4-10), which tells the story of Melvin Carter Jr., and Wilson’s Girl (October 2-8), which is about the Albert Lea meatpacking strikes. In late fall, The Boy Wonder: Stassen Musical (October 30-November 5) follows Harold Stassen’s political career from being state governor at age 31 to becoming a war hero, an important member of the Eisenhower administration, and a nine-time loser during the Republican presidential nominee process. The festival ends with The Betty Crocker Musical (November 20-26), and while you may know the name, you probably haven’t taken the time to examine how this Midwest mythical figure has changed throughout the years in response to questions of race and gender.

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