An abolitionist's tale

"Beneath that veneer is a very interesting, complex human being," Artzner said. "He had a very defined mission. He was a loving husband and father and an excellent shepherd."

The loving husband part was chiefly captured in letters between Brown and his wife, which form the basis of the play. Artzner and Leonino are both proud to have compiled the largest collection of letters written by Mary Brown, who was just 16 when she married John Brown. Together, the couple had 13 children.

Mary Brown was very sick, Leonino said, so as her children grew, they often traveled with their father. He and Mary exchanged frequent letters, where he would recount tales like the time he was trying to make some money selling wool in England and people were constantly looking to take advantage of him. One presented him a bag and asked him what kind of wool was in it, and John Brown correctly told him that it wasn't wool " it was dog hair.

Beyond those stories was a strong bond that Leonino could relate to as she took the stage for the first time.

"What was easy was the tremendous amount of love between John and Mary Brown," Leonino said.

The love spurred Mary Brown to decide to join John on his trip to Harpers Ferry despite her ill health. On her way to Virginia, she stopped at a friend's house in Philadelphia. John had anticipated she would go there and had sent letters there warning her not to continue the journey, that it was too dangerous.

"She was just shattered," Artzner said. "She had no idea that that was going to be the last time she saw him."

In many cases, Artzner and Leonino were able to synch John's letters with Mary's replies and vice versa. The play features each one on one side of the stage reciting parts of the letters. They also sometimes address the crowd, such as when the scene is John Brown talking to the press in prison and the audience stands in as reporters asking implied questions.

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