"Reaching Out to All of Us": On the Telling and Retelling of the
Biddy Mason Story
by Dana Johnson
Note: Renowned director/choreographer Annie Loui of UCI and CounterBalance Theater has worked with author Dana Johnson (Break Any Woman Down; Elsewhere, California; In the Not Quite Dark) to produce a multigenre performance at the Claire
Trevor School of the Arts, on stage December 1 through 4. In this essay, Johnson meditates on the enduring and constantly rediscoverable place of Mason’s story, its re-envisioning on stage in Orange County, and her collaboration with Loui.
The City of Los Angeles, my birthplace, is ever mysterious. She is a city that no one can ever truly know, its contours shifting daily, cultures and people and places fading into
the past, replaced by others, themselves already becoming history. Many think they can define it with an easy cliché, or by the names of the men memorialized on its buildings.
Los Angeles, though, is mainly defined by ghosts, the people who lived and died here, who reach out to us from the past in surprising ways. If one knows where to look, or if one is lucky enough to stumble upon a revelation, one can find in the art of the city declarations from the erased and forgotten, an affirmation that their lives were important to community and place. Still, what we know is never enough. The prominence of stories about those who are white, male and privileged, their mythologies, are the
stories we know, while the stories of others languish or are obliterated.
Get tickets now to see The Story of Biddy Mason December 1st-4th.
Biddy Mason, an African American woman who was seminal to the early days of Los Angeles, has haunted me ever since I stumbled upon Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s installation in downtown Los Angeles, commemorating Biddy’s achievements. Entitled “Biddy Mason’s Place: A Passage of Time,” the 82-foot concrete wall is located between Broadway and Spring Streets, where Biddy built her homestead in 1866 on nearly one acre of land.
This installation, a timeline of Biddy’s life, details her long journey as an enslaved woman, how she walked from Mississippi in a caravan and arrived in California, a free state, where she would go to court to gain her freedom. And what she would do with that freedom would be remarkable. She amassed a fortune, was a nurse, a midwife and a philanthropist who built a school and the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. Through charity and providing resources, she did everything she could to help the people of Los Angeles. The woman who was a wedding present in Mississippi became the savior of so many in her new city of Los Angeles. The timeline
begins with the words “Biddy Mason Born a Slave.” The final entry on the timeline reads “Los Angeles mourns and reveres Grandma Mason.” In between those two entries are details of a life that I had not known about, that many Los Angelinos have ever heard about. And yet, these details are not enough. There is still so much about her life that we don’t know. Can’t know. So, once again confronted with the inadequacies of how history selects and omits when it comes to the narratives of people of color, I wrote “The Story of Biddy Mason,” a fictional account of her life.
Now, in collaboration with Annie Loui, artistic director of CounterBalance Theater, Biddy’s story is being told at the University of California Irvine, through the genres of theater and dance. As a writer, watching this process unfold has been fascinating, to witness how the body’s movement can resurrect a life and tell Biddy’s story through the heart, brain, bone, blood and muscle of the young performers channeling Biddy’s story through motion and action. Their bodies serve as a portal to the past, a perpetual testimony to a pervasive inheritance. Annie Loui’s vision and additional research of Biddy’s quest for freedom through the courts deepens this story, and her multiethnic cast speaks to the legacy of Biddy, to the legacy of the children she brought into the world, the impoverished and needful she tended to, extending life to these Los Angelinos who made up the
city. I like to imagine all that we cannot know, the generations of those past recipients of Biddy’s generosity, the incalculable largesse of her legacy. She relied on her body to make it to California. She put one foot in front of the other and with her life, gave life. In this production, I like to imagine Biddy reaching out to all of us. I see her in the graceful lilt of an arm, feel her in the thunder of dancers’ feet as they trudge across the stage, and hear her in the remarkable voice of the young performer who speaks the imagined words of Biddy, words that I wrote, so that Biddy could explain what so many did not know. She was a mother to Los Angeles.
Dana Johnson is the author of the short story collection In the Not Quite Dark. She is also the author of Break Any Woman Down, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel Elsewhere, California. Both books were nominees for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Zyzzyva, The Paris Review, Callaloo, The Iowa Review, and has been included in several anthologies. Among her latest work is Trailblazer: Delilah Beasley’s California, a fictionalized account of the life of African American historian and scholar Delilah Beasley. Born and raised in and around Los Angeles, she is a professor of English at the University of Southern California. You can find out more about her work at https://danajohnsonauthor.com.