Can art transform our future by addressing our past? Actors Studio Drama School (ASDS) Adjunct Professor of Improvisational Movement and Basic Acting Technique Kate Taney Billingsley ’14 is hoping her new play American Rot, will do just that, by challenging views of racial injustice and inspiring genuine reform. It’s a full-length version of her earlier one-act piece, A Man of His Time, which has already had a historic impact.
Taney Billingsley’s work examines the legacy of the US Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott Decision of 1857, which propelled the nation toward Civil War and set the tone for the racism that still exists today. Scott was an enslaved man who sued for his freedom, and the court’s decision, widely regarded as the worst in its history, held that African Americans could not be regarded as American citizens, whether free or enslaved. American Rot is a fictional look at what happens when Walter Scott, a descendant of Dred Scott, is offered an apology by a descendant of Roger Brooke Taney, the Chief Justice who presided over the decision.
“It takes work to see the parts of ourselves that are still oppressive, and it takes work to not only dismantle these deep-seeded personal biases, but to understand how to be the best ally possible in the fight against racism in America. I believe strongly that the fight for racial justice and the fight for women’s rights are not so separate from one another and must come together if justice is to be served. These conversations are not comfortable, but I am not in the business of making people comfortable. If I make people feel uncomfortable with my play, then I’ve done my job as an artist,” says Taney Billingsley.
Taney Billingsley herself has a personal connection to the Dred Scott case that goes back to its origins; she is a direct descendant of Roger Brooke Taney.
Growing up, animated family discussions about her ancestor were a confused mixture of horror over his decision and pride in his achievement in becoming a member of the high court. More than once she heard her father Charlie Taney, ask: “What would happen if we apologized to the Scotts?”
The question went unanswered until 2011, when Taney Billingsley was studying at Pace University. A course assignment to portray a white supremacist character from Dutchman, a play by Amiri Baraka, challenged her to more fully understand prejudice and hatred. As a result, she found herself compelled to write a fictionalized reaction.
“I felt I had this real responsibility to have a reckoning with my own white privilege,” she says.
The result was A Man of His Time, which debuted in August 2015 in a production at the MOCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) by Colors of Community, a nonprofit theater company created and led by ASDS graduates Kim Lin Rios Bova ’16, acting, Bobby Rodriguez ’15, acting, and Kaili Turner ’15, acting.
While the play was well received by the mostly African-American audience, Taney Billingsley says she continued to question whether her work would matter.
Renowned actress, singer and stage director Estelle Parsons believed that it would. The Academy Award winner— who was directing a social justice-focused series at the Actors Studio—read the play, loved it, and chose to direct a staged reading. The performance was documented in the New York Times, and Parsons also directed a radio play recording for the podcast Playing on Air, staring Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields, Law and Order, The Newsroom, Grace and Frankie) as the contemporary Taney and the acclaimed stage star John Douglas Thompson (TONY nomination for Jitney, Satchmo at the Waldorf, Othello) as the contemporary Scott.
“When the theater artist expresses his personal truth by digging deeply into his soul, that truth becomes a global truth that touches, connects and moves the world,” says Andreas Manolikakis, chair, Actors Studio Drama School. “This kind of deep artistic expression, together with the human contact that the theater provides, can influence society in important ways.”
That’s just what happened. On March 6, 2017, Billingsley had the opportunity to offer a real-life apology, standing before Lynne M. Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott and founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. The reconciliation, which looked a lot different than it does in the play, took place the steps of the Maryland Statehouse in front of an assembled crowd of onlookers and media, exactly 160 years after the Dred Scott ruling was issued.
“It’s an open door for us to say if the Scotts and the Taneys can reconcile, can't you?” Jackson told ABC News regarding the event.
The families initially connected thanks to encouragement from Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn, who was serving as Actors Studio artistic director and convinced Billingsley to reach out with an invitation to see A Man of His Time at the Actors Studio; however, Jackson and Billingsley have needed no help in forming a deep bond over their shared commitment to creating change.
“It’s fascinating that two descendants met over a play about their history,” says Jackson. “We’ve really united, and it’s been wonderful.”
Their association has included sharing information and contacts, and collaborating on educational events organized by Jackson’s foundation, such as the Dred Scott 160th Anniversary Festival of Freedom at the Missouri History Museum.
Taney Billingsley’s father has also become involved with the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation performing professional services pro bono.
“There has to be forgiveness to move forward, but also some level of atonement, if you will,” Taney Billingsley says.
That sentiment forms the heart of A Man of His Time, and it’s what drove Taney Billingsley to dive deeper by turning it into a full-length play; the powerful moment of reconciliation in Maryland could not become an empty gesture.
With financial backing from two generous angel investors, Pamela Murphy and Rick D'Avino, Taney Billingsley completed American Rot, earlier this year. The project included visits to St. Louis, where Dred Scott fought his legal battle for freedom; Roger Taney’s birthplace in Maryland; Fort Snelling, MN, where Dred and Harriet Scott were enslaved for many years; and Taneytown, MD, where Taney Billingsley was invited to attend a family reunion with descendants of individuals who were enslaved by Taney family ancestors. She also conducted interviews and participated in a number of panel discussions organized by Jackson. Most recently, Taney Billingsley was part of a symposium about implicit bias in the court system for the National Judicial College at Logan University.
“I really needed to educate myself further, because I felt ignorant in many ways when I was writing the original piece,” she says. “My goals were to research Taney and deepen my understanding of the African American experience in this country, because all I had was my own white perspective and my ideas of what it may or may not be like, which I will never fully understand, but as an artist, it is my job to try.”
Her play is rooted in the past, but now, Taney Billinglsey is focused on the future. With support from Jackson and continued interest from The Actors Studio—Parsons is interested in directing again—she has high hopes that American Rot will be even more successful. By giving audiences more to think about, Taney Billingsley hopes the play will provide atonement and reparation by driving legislative reform to address longstanding systemic inequities.
“Racism is so complex; it’s such a big issue, like a web through our entire nation,” Taney Billingsley says. “These conversations are not comfortable, but I am not in the business of making people comfortable. If I make people feel uncomfortable with my play, then I’ve done my job as an artist.”