‘Fiddler’-Inspired ‘Garreville’ Tells Story of Sharecropper Family in 1915

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The Garreville cast participates in a stage reading at the Kennedy Center in Willingboro, New Jersey.
The Garreville cast participates in a stage reading at the Kennedy Center in Willingboro, New Jersey. (Photos courtesy of Ryk Lewis)

A staged reading of a new musical inspired by Fiddler on the Roof is coming to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at 7 p.m. on July 27.

Set in a fictitious rural southern town called Garreville in 1915, the musical, called Garreville, is about a black sharecropper, Nelson, and the social changes encroaching upon his daughters and his community.

The musical is produced by Brainchild Stageworx, founded by Ryk Lewis, writer, composer and director of the production. The music, rich with blues, gospel and West African rhythms, represents the African American diaspora.

“We are aiming for powerful historical accuracy, so while graphic turn-of-the-century racism is part of the story, the traditions, resilience and triumph of the Garreville community are inspiring,” Lewis said. “The characters and their struggles are very relatable — people can see their own lives and struggles for racial equality and social justice in the story,” he said.

Nelson is facing the threat of physical violence against himself and his community, and the economic restraints of being a sharecropper and the perpetual debt associated with it, Lewis said. A father, torn between tradition and change, he is coping with the danger of literacy in the black community, and dealing with the realities of being in a community that is separate and unequal.

“The plot of the musical was inspired by that of the Fiddler on the Roof, while the setting, script and the music are completely different,” Lewis said.

Originally from Philadelphia, Lewis grew up in the city’s West Oak Lane section, close to the Jewish communities in Elkins Park and Glenside, which Lewis said influenced his career and the plot development of Garreville. Lewis, a singer and a musician, especially piano and percussion, was formerly a member the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale.

There are similarities between Nelson and the character Tevye of Fiddler, set in Russia in 1905. Nelson has six daughters, and Tevye has five.

“Nelson and Tevye are both deeply religious men, and while they are not dogmatic, their personal conversations and reflections with God drive how they view the world and how they make decisions,” Lewis said. “Both men are the pilots of their families, but consult their faith in decision making.”

Steve Wright, who plays the role of Nelson, is a Philadelphia actor and a veteran of dozens of local theater performances. Rising Philadelphia theater performer Camille Young plays Nelson’s wife and matriarch, Estelle.

Black and white historic photo of a sharecropping family
Historic photo of a sharecropping family

The plot focuses on Nelson’s three older daughters, Mattie, Abigail and Cora. Nelson, like Tevye, empowers his daughters to think for themselves and to base their decisions on their convictions. Nelson brings home Cornell, a student at a historically black college, to teach his daughters to read.

African Americans were forbidden to be literate at the time, and it was illegal to teach them to read and write, a situation that was unfortunately coupled with cultural and social norms limiting women’s education, Lewis said. In Fiddler, Tevye’s daughters learn to read and write at a time when Jewish women were prohibited from reading Talmud and Torah.

Keeping an unprivileged class in their place, often through violence, is a theme in both Garreville and Fiddler.

“Many sharecroppers could not read and signed unfair contacts,” Lewis said. “Black people who could read were often beaten and terrorized by authorities, Ku Klux Klan members and the community.”

Nelson is coping with change and must reconcile the decisions that his daughters make. His first daughter, Matte, wants to marry her lifelong friend instead of having an arranged marriage. His second daughter, Abigail, wants to marry and move away from his family. His third daughter, Cora, has fallen in love with a white man.

“Cora does not understand the implications of her decision,” Lewis said.

In much of the South, interracial marriage was not only illegal, but seen as a moral abomination. Intermarriage was illegal in most states until 1967.

Lewis approached the Penn Museum about his production and the museum agreed, expressing an interest in developing ties with community projects that provide a comprehensive view of history.

The production company is working to raise funds for a full-scale production.

“The production will generate a conversation about our shared history and struggle for racial equality and social justice,” Lewis said. For example, “Hitler modeled the Nuremberg law off of the Jim Crow laws,” he said.

The staged reading is a performance without costumes or sets. The cast will read the entire script, act out all the scenes, and sing all the music, including some of the choreography.

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