Strong themes for tough times

By Christopher Horb

Sandra Seaton's 'The Will' delves into race, family, power and music

When the curtain rises on “The Will” at the Michigan Library and Historical Center Forum Friday, it marks not just another step in playwright Sandra Seaton’s professional journey, but in her personal journey as well.

Seaton conceived the Civil War drama on a trip to her native Tennessee. While studying public records relating to the African-American post-slavery experience, she examined her family’s history and discovered her great-great grandfather’s last will and testament.

“You could say it was something of a revelation,” said Seaton, a playwright and librettist who has served as Writer In Residence for Michigan State University’s College of Law. “I was struck reading the wills by the evocation of that way of life before and after slavery. And anytime you have the opportunity to show someone an aspect of history they don’t know about, it’s so important.”

“The Will” is a special event presented by the Library of Michigan, Library of Michigan Foundation and the Michigan Historical Center.

“The Will” dramatizes the experience of the Websters, African American brothers who return to their small Tennessee hometown from Union army service hoping to be treated as full citizens but who are disappointed by the very different reality of the Reconstruction-era South. Their father, Cyrus Webster, wants to ease their burden by passing on his wisdom as well as his material possessions, but the brothers face an uncertain future.

“It’s about the conflict that arises out of having expectations and not having them fulfilled,” Seaton said. “There’s a lot of energy in this play. You have a lot of worlds colliding — black versus white, poor versus well-to-do.”

Music plays a crucial role in “The Will.” The play features music by Erik Santos, the innovative young University of Michigan music professor, composer, singer and electronic music wizard. There are also musical interludes by soprano Pia Williams, who plays Patti, a character inspired by the life of renowned 19th-century African American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.

Seaton said she wanted to show aspects of African American culture that only been documented with a “broad brush” up to now. “I had studied some things about blacks in opera and knew this was an important part of the culture that you don’t usually hear about,” she said.

“The Will” reunites Seaton with director John Lepard, who directed two other plays by Seaton, “Music History” and “A Bed Made in Heaven,” and joined “The Will” at her request. Completing the cast under Lepard are Keith Williams, Regina Riddle, Kenneth Nelson, Corey Dorris, Michael Hays, Michael Banghart, Chris Goeckel and Gordon Hicks Clark.

When it comes to Seaton’s work, Lepard is a fan as well as a collaborator. “(Seaton) is tenacious,” he said. “She knows what she wants to do and she goes after it. Sandra comes up with great ideas and ‘The Will’ is no different. It’s a tremendous premise.”

Lepard said “The Will” offers a wealth of insight into race relations in the aftermath of slavery but also asks the audience to consider the ways society continues to grapple with the issues of racial equality today.

“We can see how far we’ve come, but stuff like this is still going on and we, as a society, still deal with this,” he said. “I think we are frequently asking “How do we empower people in our world?’ and ‘How do we keep people from being taken advantage of?’”

The Will

Michigan Library and Historical Center

7:30 p.m.

Friday, July 27


Tickets must be purchased in advance at