From The Page To The Stage: Scranton Woman Turns Book About Family History In Slavery And Freedom Into Original Play
Sandra Burgette Miller spent more than 20 years gathering the information she would turn into a book about her family’s daring past — an escape from slavery through the Underground Railroad that brought her ancestor to Northeast Pennsylvania.
In a few weeks, just a few months after her book’s publication, the Scranton resident and her family members will take that story to the stage in Miller’s new play, “Tell ’Em: One Man’s Struggle from Slavery to Waverly, PA.” The show will run Friday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 9, in Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple’s Shopland Hall. Admission costs $15.
An Air Force brat, Miller and her siblings grew up around the world before settling back in Northeast Pennsylvania, their family’s home base, when their father retired from the military. Miller did not learn until later just how far her Burgette roots stretched — back to a black settlement on Carbondale Road in Waverly Twp., where her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Burgette, ended up in the 1840s after escaping from slavery in Maryland through the Underground Railroad. He dropped his slave surname and took a new one from a town he passed on the way.
Burgette joined numerous fugitive slaves who settled in Waverly, where Miller said the residents protected them by running bounty hunters out of town.
“Waverly, they are so proud, and I’m proud that they are proud to have helped, you know, to have open arms for those slaves that came in,” Miller said. “They didn’t have to run any further, and they hid them. They’re still talking today about the hidden sections and the underground paths that they have in their houses.”
Burgette headed a family of 12 children, and a son, Benjamin, had a dozen kids of his own, including Miller’s grandfather. His picture hangs on the wall of her living room alongside the poems that formed the backbone of her creative work.
Miller finished her manuscript about seven years ago but said she “didn’t trust who to give it to, so I sat on it for years.” And then, it disappeared. She eventually found the copy and told herself, “I’m not going to be all nervous about it and be all picky, because a minute ago I didn’t even have it. It was lost. So I’m just going to go for it.”
With help from a woman named Torianna Brown, Miller published her book, which came out in November.
“It was beautiful,” said Miller, who will have a book signing Friday, Feb. 1, at 5:30 p.m. at Library Express in the Marketplace at Steamtown, Scranton. “I was thrilled. We were all excited.”
“It’s so funny that people think that things are like quick and happening,” added her sister, JoAnn Scott, who lives in East Stroudsburg. “But when you look behind it, it’s years that people put into something to finally get it to fruition. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh that must have been easy.’ No, it took a long time.”
As she prepared for the book’s release, Miller said, she started to get excited and began thinking even bigger. The idea for a play came to mind, but she shared her doubts about whether she could make it work with Scott, who told her that if it didn’t work, at least she would be falling forward.
“That’s what made me just say, ‘OK, I’m going (to do it), and my dad will be happy that I’m doing it, and I’m just going to keep chugga-lugging. I’m just going to keep going,’” Miller said.
Miller described herself as not a very outgoing person, noting that she has stepped out of her comfort zone to put together the play. But her desire to finish the book and the play for her late father and his siblings pushed her forward.
The sisters call the play “dramatic performance poetry” set to original music by some of Miller’s daughters. Told in chronological order, it features not only Burgette’s tale but also slavery stories inspired by dreams Miller had as she researched for her book. She would dream she was a slave then wake up and quickly write down the details.
“It wasn’t exactly a family member that I had a dream about, but because I was doing so much genealogy (research), it was just so many different stories were coming to me,” Miller said. “I always used to say it was like somebody was trying to get me to tell their story, so that’s why I kept writing them.”
More than 20 family members are helping with the play, both behind the scenes and on stage, and others are coming from across the country to see the finished piece. LaToya Martin is director.
Burgette said she hopes that she can give people something worth waiting for after all these years and that it inspires people “to want to know their story,” whether through genealogical DNA testing or more traditional research.
“I’m hoping that when they see this that they would say, ‘I wish I could do that. I wish I could find my family history. I wish I could find, you know, names and stories I didn’t know and pictures.’ ... Everybody deserves to know,” she said.
As for her own ancestor, Miller added, Burgette did not know that he made an impact, but that’s exactly what happened when he decided to escape slavery.
“He made his mark in this world, and I’m going to make his mark stand out,” she said.
Contact the writer: email@example.com; 570-348-9100 x5107; @cheaneywest on Twitter
If you go
What: Book signing with Sandra Burgette Miller
When: Friday, Feb. 1, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Where: Library Express Bookstore, the Marketplace at Steamtown, 300 Lackawanna Ave., Scranton
Details: Call 570-558-1670 or visit the Facebook event page.
What: “Tell ’Em: One Man’s Struggle from Slavery to Waverly, PA”
When: Friday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Shopland Hall, fourth floor, Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
Details: Tickets cost $15, and seating is first-come, first-served. The show lasts approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.