WINNING HER FREEDOM
"The Milly Project" is a play about Milly Sawyers, an enslaved woman from Springfield, Mo., who won her freedom through the courts decades before Dred Scott v. Sanford. The day before she was scheduled to receive $500 in damages, she was attacked by a mob including John Polk Campbell, the founder of Springfield. She disappeared, and no one knows what happened next.

Sawyers' story was uncovered in 2017 by archivist Connie Yen and Springfield News-Leader reporter Jack Bologna. The resulting article inspired director Kendra Chappell and her students at Willard High School to write and perform the play for competition. They faced backlash from the school for the play's contents, and Chappell left the school after more than 30 years of teaching.

The show features protest songs, spirituals and original compositions; a cast of children, teens and adults from the Springfield community; and a story that runs through the history of the United States, from Christopher Columbus to present-day news.

"This story is a story of race," Adora Snead, who plays Milly Sawyers, said. "It's a story of hope, and it's a story of perseverance, and it's a story that's told from both sides: the victor and the oppressor."

This story was published in two parts by the Columbia Missourian. At The Milly Project's show at Timmons Hall in Springfield, I worked with videographer Samantha Waigand and writer Claudia Khaw; I continued to collaborate with Khaw when the performance came to Columbia.
Adora Snead performs as Milly Sawyers in “The Milly Project” on Sunday, March 1, 2020, at Broadway Christian Church in Columbia, Mo. “Springfield, Missouri, or even just Missouri in general, has been such a divided and polarized area when it comes to issues on race,” Snead said. “I’m just really grateful to be a vessel in which we get to shed light onto that polarization and also bring hope and courage for the future.”
DeAyra Hairston-Clark, center, rehearses for a performance of "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. The show features actors playing many shifting and coinciding roles. In this scene, Hairston-Clark plays a slave who had just been reprimanded by her master.
Director Kendra Chappell gives Ethan Gambriel a pep talk before a performance of "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. "This is intergenerational healing," Chappell said of the play. "It's very heavy. It's also very hopeful."
Cast members outstretch their arms during a production of "The Milly Project" on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Timmons Hall in Springfield, Mo. Actress Lizbeth Chappell, daughter of director Kendra Chappell, said the goal of the show is to educate about both Milly Sawyers's story and the struggles of marginalized people as a whole. "We need your help," Lizbeth said. "We need to do something. We can't just go back to our lives."
From left, Rachel Jamieson, Adora Snead and Amari Snead review their lines before a performance of "The Milly Project" in Springfield, Mo. Adora, who plays Milly Sawyers, was part of the original group of Willard High School students who wrote and staged the play in early 2019. Her sister Amari is in seventh grade, the youngest member of the cast.
Adora Snead acts out a scene involving a slave market during a performance of "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. During the post-performance Q&A, director Kendra Chappell talked about the production's active choice to use legal language throughout the production for impact, despite the "archaic and dehumanizing" feelings they invoke.
From left, Ethan Gambriel, DeAyra Hairston-Clark, Adora Snead and Jon Herbert perform in "The Milly Project" in Springfield, Mo. A 2018 article in the Springfield News-Leader by Jack Bologna, played by Gambriel in the production, inspired director Kendra Chappell and her students at Willard High School to create the play.
Adora Snead stretches before going onstage as Milly Sawyers in “The Milly Project” in Springfield, Mo. Timmons Hall was one of the first black churches in Springfield when it opened in 1932. It was saved from demolition in 2015 and relocated to Silver Springs Park, the city's only black park during segregation. "The Milly Project" was performed at the church's reopening in June 2019.
De-Ayra Hairston-Clark holds her place in her songbook during a pre-performance run-through of "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. "At Willard [High School], I was supposed to be loud and extravagant and ghetto," Hairston-Clark said about her personal connections to the racism portrayed in the show. "And I was loud, I'll admit that."
The company of "The Milly Project" performs a scene in Columbia, Mo. During a post-show Q&A, the cast spoke on the ever-changing nature of the text. Cast member Lizbeth Chappell remarked that the next addition to the script would likely be the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which passed through the House of Representatives on Feb. 26, 2020. This legislation classifies lynching as a federal hate crime for the first time in the U.S.
Amari Snead sits during rehearsal for "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. Amari and her sister Adora, who plays Milly Sawyers, are mixed-race, which Adora said has led to exclusion from both black and white people. "I have the side of slavery, and I have the side of those who hold Confederate flags," Adora said.
Amari Snead, left, and DeAyra Hairston-Clark clutch hands during warmups for a performance of "The Milly Project" in Columbia, Mo. Director Kendra Chappell said a main mission of the show is to imagine and reimagine notions of freedom. “I had no idea how diverse adults were in their perception about race,” Chappell said. “So many people are frightened to talk about history.”

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