HARRISONBURG — A Spotswood High School graduate is bringing the inspiring story of a Rockingham County slave who was determined to reach freedom to the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center as the nation observes Black History Month in February.
Brianna Madden-Olivares, 19, wrote an original play about the life of Jourden Banks, based off a narrative account of Banks’ life written by James W. C. Pennington that was published in Liverpool, England, in 1862.
“I combine my own original words to tell the story a little bit easier,” Madden-Olivares said.
“Not Made For This” will be performed at the Simms Center, located at 620 Simms Ave., on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 4 p.m. The show is free to attend.
Last year during Black History Month, the Black Heritage Project did a reading of Banks’ narrative.
“Last year could be considered as a part one — an introduction — and this year we’ve moved onto part two, telling the history of his escape to freedom and him finally reaching England,” said Monica Robinson, director of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project’s intern program and president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP. “We’re making sure there’s a connection between the two.”
Madden-Olivares is a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was born in East Harlem, N.Y., also known as Spanish Harlem, and moved to the Shenandoah Valley when she was in seventh grade. She graduated from Spotswood last spring.
The play, which also incorporates music and step dance, is produced by the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. Madden-Olivares is an intern with the city-based organization.
Robin Lyttle, founder of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, helped Madden-Oliveras write the show and has mentored her since last year. Lyttle has enjoyed watching her flourish as a burgeoning playwright.
“I think she’s an amazingly gifted young person,” Lyttle said. “The opportunity to work with her on her first big project has been wonderful.”
Lyttle said it is important for the community to finally acknowledge Banks and others who were enslaved in the Shenandoah Valley, some of whose descendants still live in the area today.
“It’s a huge part of the Valley’s history that’s been overlooked,” she said.
Banks, born Jan. 3, 1833, was a slave who grew up on a 400-acre plantation in the county owned by Charles L. Yancey.
“He knew from a very young age that he wasn’t meant to be a slave,” Madden-Olivares said. “He had a very determined spirit.”
The farm where Banks and his family lived is now the location of the Merck and Co. plant south of Elkton.
His family was split up, and Banks was sold to another slaveholder in Alabama. He and his siblings were sold South, while his parents remained in the area.
Banks made several failed escape attempts before finally crossing into New York. He secured his freedom when he boarded a steam ship to England, arriving on Oct. 23, 1861.
Madden-Olivares’ show follows his journey from Virginia to Alabama to England.
“It’s Virginia history, but we didn’t learn about it in school,” she said. “I was shocked when I read it. This is such an impactful story.”
The title comes from Banks’ resilience that he was not made to be a slave. Madden-Olivares hopes the production shines light on the horrors endured by African-Americans.
Madden-Olivares also added her own character to the show, a high school student named Aaminah who speaks about her life as an African-American in the current political climate, touching on issues of modern-day racism and prejudice.
“She bridges the gap so that although slavery ended all those years ago, there’s still consequences today. There are still people who benefit from it,” she said. “There’s things that haven’t changed. They’re just called by a different name.”
Lyttle said the character of Aaminah is meant to represent Madden-Olivares’ own experiences.
“She took that story and paralleled it to her own experiences in 2019,” Lyttle said. “She’s done a good job of telling her story and how it connects to that story of 1862.”
“Not Made For This” will be performed again on March 16 at Court Square Theater at 7 p.m.