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A new free play at Federal Hall reveals the bumpy early days of the government

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When you think about the seat of United States government, you might think Washington, D.C., maybe Philadelphia if you remember early American history. But in the first days under the new U.S. Constitution, the government was based in New York City. As NPR's Jennifer Vanasco reports, a new play shows it didn't go all that smoothly.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: The Federal Hall National Memorial standing on Wall Street today isn't the original Federal Hall. That one was torn down in 1812.

KEN BOWLING: And sold for scrap.

VANASCO: Ken Bowling is a historian. He says the building there now was built as a customs house, but the site is still a really important place.

BOWLING: This was where the freedom of press trial of John Zenger was held.

VANASCO: That trial established that journalists could not be convicted of libel if they told the truth. Also on that site is where President George Washington gave his first inaugural address, Congress had its first important debate about slavery and the Bill of Rights was drafted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of expression.

VANASCO: That's from a play, "The Democracy Project," that's now running in the rotunda of Federal Hall. It's about those big things that happened, but it's really more a meditation about who we are as a country and where we come from.

LARISSA FASTHORSE: I want people to leave asking, why didn't I know this? Why do I believe this? Why haven't I learned the real history? Why have I just assumed what being taught is true?

VANASCO: That's one of the handful of leading playwrights who took on this challenge. Among them, Bruce Norris, who's won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, Michael R. Jackson - he's won a Pulitzer and a Tony too - and also...

VANASCO: Larissa FastHorse.

VANASCO: She's a winner of what's known as the MacArthur Genius Grant. The group met again and again and again for about six years. It was a long process. FastHorse says they were trying to write one script altogether, but the group is opinionated. They came from different backgrounds.

FASTHORSE: We're, you know, Native American and Black and white and female and male.

VANASCO: And the history they're trying to tell is complicated - for example, George Washington.

FASTHORSE: People are talking about his teeth and his dentures bothering him. Well, then we found out, like, his dentures were made from teeth from his slaves, you know? Like, that's horrible. I mean, they say, well, he did pay for them.

VANASCO: Federal Hall is also where the United States signed its first treaty with Native Americans under the new constitution. Alexander McGillivray was the chief of the Creeks at the time - the late 1700s. Here, in a scene imagined by FastHorse, he's talking to Ona Judge, an enslaved woman. McGillivray says George Washington is going to be overthrown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Ona Judge) Overthrow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander McGillivray) No more America.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Ona Judge) No more threats.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander McGillivray) No more treaties.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Ona Judge) No more Washingtons.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander McGillivray) No more wars.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Ona Judge) No more slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander McGillivray) Well, just because the Americans are gone doesn't mean my plantation will run itself.

VANASCO: Alexander McGillivray, Native American leader of the Creek Nation - yeah, in real life, he was a plantation owner. He enslaved Black people. The play says, people you think would be allies don't always have the same goals - then or now. But we still need to talk to each other.

TAI THOMPSON: I think that right now we're in such a fraught time that we're just backing into our corners, and that's not what democracy is.

VANASCO: That's the play's co-director, Tai Thompson.

THOMPSON: You know, democracy is that we have to come to the table and talk. And we have to come to the table and, like, try to make something work. That's what democracy is, and not just sitting in our corners and saying, no, me, me, me. I, I, I. It's about we, we, we. And it's not easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Democracy, democracy, it's messy, it's messy...

VANASCO: The play ends with a song about how, yes, this democracy project - it is messy. It's not an easy story because our history - it's not easy either.

Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.