Sophie, a 36-year-old woman born into slavery, has a simple dream for her adopted home near Nicodemus, Kansas: she wants to live in peace.
"I want this town to be a place where a colored man can work as hard for himself as he worked for the white folks," says Sophie, the heroine of Pearl Cleage's post-Civil War drama, Flyin' West. "I want this town to be a place where a colored child can go to anyone's door and feel like they belong there."
Sophie, as portrayed by Rowan senior Jamilah Fossie this weekend in the Alice Tohill Theater, helps tell the story of thousands of African Americans who, following emancipation, flee bigotry and a botched reconstruction of the Deep South in pursuit of a normal life.
The play is one of four main stage productions by the Department of Theatre and Dance for 2011-12 and features a cast of six African American students who depict a tale of struggle and hardship that continued long after slavery ended.
Director Elisabeth Hostetter said the program was chosen specifically for African American History Month.
"This is a piece of history that is seldom told," says Hostetter, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance. "It's a fictionalized story about the settlers of an all-black town in Kansas who want a better life."
But Hostetter and Fossie said a better life does not come easily to the settlers, and, for many, not at all. The settlers, many of them women, struggle with the harsh conditions of prairie life, bigotry and Jim Crow laws, even violence and abuse from within their own community.
"Sophie's goal is to build this utopian community of African Americans," says Fossie, 29, of Pennsauken. "They arrived, they settled, everything was going great, and then, boom! everything changes."
And what changes, she says, will leave audiences stunned.
"They dealt with some of the same issues we're dealing with now," Fossie says. "Whether or not we've overcome them, that is the question."
IF YOU GO: Showtimes for Flyin' West are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Alice Tohill Theatre in Bunce Hall. For tickets and driving instructions, visit the Box Office or call (856) 256-4545.