It’s been about 113 years since Mattie Griffith Browne, a 19th century Kentucky suffragist, abolitionist and author, died.
But Browne lives on through Megan Burnett, an associate professor and theater program director at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
“As her, I feel more and more as if I am giving voice to someone who was forgotten and yet did a lot,” Burnett said during a recent phone interview. “She wasn’t one of the big names, but she did things to risk her and her family’s life, and I don’t know if I would have done that or could have, but as her I can.”
Burnett will perform her one-woman show as Browne in Three Oaks and St. Joseph this week. The events, put on by the League of Women Voters of Berrien and Cass Counties, is in part to celebrate the 100 years of achieving some women’s right to vote with the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
Born in Owensboro, Ky., to a slave-holding family, Browne was determined to free the slaves she inherited from her parents. As an adult, she wrote “Autobiography of a Female Slave” to raise money to free those slaves. She then turned her activism to suffragism and worked to obtain the right to vote for all citizens.
“I had been performing as Fanny Kemble, an actor from London in the 19th century who married a slave owner and wrote ‘Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839,’” Burnett said. “This tickled my imagination, and I wanted to find a Kentucky writer to portray.”
Through some Googling, she found Browne’s book and started becoming fascinated with her.
“So I started talking about her and presenting papers in 2014, then I developed the play and decided to use my own specific set of skills, acting, to bring her to life in 2016,” Burnett said.
She had already done research on 19th century styles of movement, clothing and language for her previous show, so she focused on Browne’s writing, and works written about her. She visited the Owensboro library and the historical society in Louisville and developed a piece.
“I felt like something was missing,” Burnett said. “Then the woman who runs the historical society in Owensboro called to tell me she had a high school intern who was doing some research and came across some receipts about payments for services rendered to doctors, and other people for care, for Browne’s slaves, and other invoices for things like clothing and fabric.”
She said it was very fascinating to look at the receipts that had the names of slaves, prices and items on them that Browne and her sister were responsible for.
“I was able to put that together into the show: really tangible and real information,” Burnett said. “Research happens in a lot of different ways, even through the diligence of a high school student who really loves history.”
Burnett said the show isn’t “R-rated,” but some material may not be appropriate for children.
She will conduct a post-show discussion after each performance about whatever the audience wants to talk about.
“Usually people want to find out more about her because I start in the middle of her life, around 1870, and she was born in the 1830s and died in 1906,” she said. “Others have questions about what happened to her slaves.”
Burnett said it’s also a chance to talk about the suffragist and abolitionist movements.
“Early suffragist came out of the abolitionist movement,” she said. “And that’s where we kind of get the split between a group of suffragists who wanted everyone to vote, free women and men, and others said free men only. Mattie was of the camp everyone needed the right.”
She said she hopes her performance opens up a conversation about what’s going on in the U.S. right now.
“(Browne) talks about some of the events that happened, and I think, ‘That happened a week ago,’” Burnett said. “We’re still fighting the right to vote; still have people standing up and wanting to participate and other people are still not allowing that. That breaks my heart.”
She said she’s learned about herself while portraying Browne.
“And I still have a lot of growth to do,” she said. “But I do know that it is OK to stand up and say yes, and say no, and call attention to a wrong.”
Burnett said, for example, she walked in the Women’s March in January 2017.
“I’d never done that before, and that was exciting, and scary, and bold, and yet we weren’t ever in direct threat of harm, but it was exciting to be part of such a huge movement,” she said. “So I’ve been looking for opportunities to give myself the power to speak up. As a professor at a university, I’m very conscious of letting my female students know they can speak up and that they are important.”
She said she’s in awe of Browne’s courage in the late 19th century.
“When I’m (on stage), it’s a chance for me to take on some of that courage and fortitude,” Burnett said. “And because I’m speaking as her, I can be proud of her for the things she did, and attempted to do, and her passion.”
Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman