Celia play to be considered for production

For Fulton and Callaway County residents, the history of Celia the slave is a familiar story.

Thanks to local writer Cate Neilson, it may soon find a wider audience.

Neilson’s play based on Celia’s story, “In His Service,” has been selected by First Run Theatre of St. Louis as one of four plays to be read at its annual Reading Festival March 25-27 at De Smet Jesuit High School in Creve Coeur. “In His Service” will be read at 7 p.m. on March 25 in the school’s Thomas Hunter Theatre.

“They do a reading festival of plays they’re going to consider for production in the 2011 season,” Neilson said. “They have people come and listen and give feedback.”

Brad Slavik, president of First Run Theatre said his group received 24 submissions this year, which were then narrowed down by a four-person reading committee (who do not know the names of the playwrights) to the four works up for consideration this year: “In His Service;” “The Kerpash Affair,” a one-act play by Richard La Violette; “Divine’s Grace,” a one-act play by Richard La Violette and “Behind The Chair,” a two-act play by Jason Slavik.

Brad Slavik said what the First Run Theatre looks for in a play is “is it literate? Does it tell a good story? Are the characters interesting? Is it compelling?”

He said that according to the selection group, the answers to all those questions for “In His Service” were yes.

“It was the story, the idea and the subject matter (that made ‘In His Service’ stand out),” Slavik said. “Also, it was a well-written and compelling story — that is the most important thing — and stageability.

“This was very well done.”

Neilson said she first started working on “In His Service” after moving to Fulton in 2004. She said the project started out as a screenplay, but eventually became a two-act play after she discovered a producer already had purchased the rights for the book “Celia, A Slave.”

According to Neilson, her play — while based on Celia — takes a different approach to the story and is not based on the book at all.

“Jameson had two daughters about Celia’s age who were both at Columbia College at the time,” Neilson said. “I wrote about women being in servitude at the time; even though their experience is not the same (as a slave) white women were in servitude at that time too.”

She said “In His Service” uses the relationship between Celia and Jameson’s oldest daughter, Betty whom Neilson said “feels a real connection with Celia.”

She gave the example of a scene that was read during this year’s annual Celia celebration in which Celia and Betty are comparing their lives.

“Betty is telling her, ‘We need to tell our stories because we can help it be different 200 years from now,” Neilson said. “ I think what’s unique about it is it really becomes more of the women’s story. Celia is telling her story and Betty is telling hers.

“It’s more from a personal standpoint between them rather than being centered around the murder and the trial and things the men were in control of. It’s more of a real woman’s story.”

She said she is looking forward to being a part of the reading festival.

“As a writer it’s certainly exciting to have someone else validate the work, whether it’s produced or not,” Neilson said.”I’m just really excited that someone outside the Fulton community has gotten interested and sees that the story does have value to be told on a more universal scale.”

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