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Performance Series Baltimoratory Breathes New Life into the Art of the Speech

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Are you feeling tired, rundown, listless? Do you poop out at political parties? The answer to all your problems is in this little performance series, Baltimoratory—a year-old project devoted to live reenactments of classic speeches. 

The brainchild of Baltimore theater doyenne Lucia A. Treasure, Baltimoratory features one-night-only reimaginations of spirited speeches originally delivered by the likes of James Baldwin, Mother Jones, and Shirley Chisholm.

“I love performance and I love bringing ideas to life. I also love history. So getting people to have a fun and energetic connection with moments in history that I think are pretty fascinating is awesome,” Treasure says.

Lucia A Treasure (Photo: Ann Kizer)

Treasure has been a fixture of Baltimore’s performance art scene for 20 years, directing productions such as Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s Welcome to Shakesville and Impassioned Embraces for Annex Theater; as well as performing in Annex productions of The Master and the Margarita, Marat/Sade, and The Left Hand of Darkness. A mentee of famed performance artist Penny Arcade, Treasure’s original performance works have been presented at P.S. 122, Labbodies, Artscape, Dreambaby Cabaret, and more.

Producing Baltimoratory under the moniker Pigeonaire, Treasure selects the speeches and performers, giving each artist wide leeway to interpret the performance. Baltimoratory’s inaugural installment featured Derek Cooper delivering a faithful, powerful performance of James Baldwin’s 1965 “Pin Drop” speech, part of a televised debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley. Meanwhile, Connor Kizer reinvented Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a séance, and Linda Campbell Franklin embodied Mother Jones rallying the coal miners of Pennsylvania to unionize in 1912. (By way of disclosure, I delivered Dorothy Parker’s 1953 speech “Hollywood, The Land I Won’t Return To” as a stand-up comedy set last year.) 

“I think each performer has really taken [Baltimoratory] in the right spirit,” Treasure says. “Like what Derek did with James Baldwin, which is just a straightforward take on the speech. He looked at the video and wanted to match it, which I thought was neat. And then there was Connor doing a séance and ending up in full combat with himself.”

Connor Kizer as Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Dave Iden)

Baltimoratory’s next installment will conclude a three-part miniseries focused on the fall of Richard Nixon, which began with JacQuan Knox performing Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking presidential campaign announcement from 1972 and continued with Dana Woodson delivering Barbara Jordan’s 1974 announcement of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The miniseries concludes on August 25, with Bobby Harris as Nixon defending himself in his infamous 1973 “I Am Not a Crook” press conference.

“I knew that at some point, I was going to do ‘I Am Not a Crook.’ How can you not?” says Treasure. “More importantly, I wanted to bring Shirley Chisholm’s voice forward as soon as I could, because she’s someone who people either adore, or they’ve never heard of her even though she pioneered so many firsts.”

Treasure notes that the speeches tend to spark conversations with audience members immediately afterward.

“People come to the show because they like history or the performer, and a lot of people stumble in because they were in Peabody for a beer, and then ended up staying. So you end up with a mixture of conversations about what people already thought about the historical figure and what they’ve discovered,” she says.

Some audience response has noted that much of the content remains unsettlingly relevant in the modern world. 

“With the Baldwin speech, I knew that what he had to say about race was relevant in the months after the death of George Floyd, and how our country was reckoning with it for the 80 millionth time,” Treasure says. “Obviously, Black folks know this is repetition, and white folks are often learning it for the first time. My hope was that it would be validating for those for whom it was repetition, and encourage ongoing conversation for those for whom it was new.”

JacQuan Knox as Shirley Chisholm (Photo: Dave Iden)

Treasure has cultivated a relationship with Peabody Heights Brewery as a home venue for Baltimoratory, where the outdoor beer garden has helped mitigate risk in gathering audiences and performers amidst the ongoing pandemic. Treasure anticipates one more installment of the series before hibernating for the winter. On September 29, Jake Bee will summon the Salem witch trials through two speeches: a 1662 sermon by the Reverend Samuel Parris, and the 1992 Salem memorial dedication speech by Holocaust survivor and scholar Elie Wiesel.

“Samuel Parris may or may not have been responsible for drumming up a lot of the hysteria about so-called witches in Salem, and Elie Wiesel spoke on one of the milestone anniversaries of the Salem witch trials, reflecting on the greater significance beyond this one locale and situation,” Treasure says. “Jake is a witch and identifies as a femme and also has a big interest in doing fire and brimstone speeches.”

Treasure sees a long arc for Baltimoratory’s future, including the opportunity for spinoffs.  

“I have to figure out how much bandwidth I have for next year, but I want to do a whole series of graduation speeches. I want to do my own [commencement speech], by a professor I didn’t get along with at all, but is a very eloquent and beautiful speech,” she says. “I also think a eulogies series will be a good time. There are lots of good eulogies; right now my favorite one is John Cleese’s eulogy for [his Monty Python colleague] Graham Chapman that is both funny and heartbreaking.”

 

Linda Campbell Franklin as Mother Jones, and the rainbow (Photo: Lucia A Treasure)

 

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Baltimoratory will return to Peabody Heights Brewery at 7 p.m. August 25 with Bobby Harris as Richard Nixon, and September 29 with Jake Bee summoning the Salem witch trials.

 

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