On August 18, 1916, five Black community members were lynched in Newberry before a mob who jeered and cheered. They were the friends, family and wife of Boisy Long, a Newberry man accused of stealing a hog and killing a deputy sheriff in a 2 a.m. altercation. There are varying accounts of the events. But it is also known that members of the Dennis family – Mary, Jim, James and Bert – were killed in relation to Long. Weeks later, Long was hanged to a similar roar of applause from thousands of onlookers. The six who were lynched came to be known as the Newberry Six.
Over the weekend, NEW BERRY, a play directed by UF professor Ryan Hope Travis, broke a long-standing silence surrounding the tragedy — not by re-enacting it, but rather celebrating the lives that were lost.
The play’s name is a new spin on famed jazz singer Billie Holiday’s 1939 song about the lynching: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit…Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”
“From ‘strange fruit’ to new berries,” said E. Stanley Richardson, Alachua County poet laureate and actor who collaborated on the writing of the play and acted in it. Richardson explained that from the tragedy, hope could still bloom. As if symbolic of that, the play was produced by the Hippodrome Theater, which operates out of a historic downtown building that was once the Gainesville courthouse where Boisy Long was sentenced by an all-white jury to hang outside its doors.
The play garnered immediate public interest. Shortly after the trailer was released on YouTube at the end of last month, all five showings at the Hippodrome theater, Nov. 5 through Nov. 10, were sold out.
Following the opening night performance, a crowd of roughly 30 people stayed for a community conversation about Alachua County’s journey toward truth and reconciliation. Janis Owens, a local historian and the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: A History of the Newberry Mass Lynching of 1916,” was also present.
Owens recounted the story of the Newberry Six, speaking to the resilience of Boisy Long and the members of Dennis’ family and others lynched by the mob on August 18. Owens said after a seven-minute deliberation by the all-white jury, Long was sentenced to death and was held in what is today the basement of the Hippodrome Theatre. A crowd of Gainesville residents stood on tiptoes on the porch to watch his 10-minute-long execution.
“The only thing grimmer than something like this happening,” she said, “is something like this happening in silence.”
Brittany Coleman, an audience member and leader in the local Equal Justice Initiative Trauma-Informed committee, said the strength of the play was the way it focused on life, not death.
“I was fully prepared to see a play reenacting lynchings,” she said. “But I was surprised when they switched gears and focused on them as people and not just lynched victims.”
A direct descendent of the Dennis family, U.S. Marine veteran Warren Lee Sr., also spoke.
“I thank you all from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
Collaborative local effort
The play was a collaborative effort between a dozen writers and actors funded by the University of Florida’s Racial Justice Research Fund, a $400,000 commitment to equity and inclusion.
Director and co-producer Ryan Hope Travis said he hoped the live play format allowed audience members to see themselves in the characters and understand the depth of the commitment necessary for reconciliation.
“That’s why we do theater in the first place,” he said. “We see ourselves; we’re so compelled by it because something in that narrative hit a chord within us.”
The work of the late UF African American Studies senior lecturer Patricia Hilliard-Nunn became his muse. Her research on Alachua County’s history of violence against Black Americans, including the tragedy of the Newberry Six, helped to spark the county’s movement toward reconciliation and remembrance.
“This story has been in the community for over 100 years,” Travis said. “But it was her work that really helped bring the conversation to the fore.”
Travis said he wanted to focus on who the Six were in life instead of the violence they suffered in death; no longer would their stories exist solely within the black and white text of a dated newspaper.
He turned to friend and actor Ryan George, who is also a UF alumni, to build his show’s link to the university and encourage other Black members of the UF theatre community to join the project. George, a company member of the Hippodrome Theatre, said he strove to comfort returning UF alumnae who had experienced racism before the university began its own truth and reconciliation initiatives.
George, an actor and co-producer of the play, feels the show could not only be an opportunity for UF to acknowledge its past but also encourage current students to connect with the greater Alachua County community.
“I think, hopefully, what this does is allow them to not use the place but to be a part of the place, even if they’re there for just a few years, to actually invest, to care about what happened, to show a level of empathy,” he said.
Travis found an important tie to the Newberry community through actor and co-producer Richardson, who grew up in Alachua and learned about the Newberry Six lynching as a child.
Richardson felt a deep commitment to elevate the stories of the victims because of his personal connections to their descendants. His first cousin married into the Long family, he said, and he played high school football with members of the Dennis family.
Richardson said portraying an individual who once lived was an emotional process, especially when the ensemble took a tour of Newberry historic locations, including the old jail where the victims were held before their deaths and their graves behind Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church in Jonesville.
Newberry mayor Jordan Marlowe said the play aligns with the efforts of the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project and the Equal Justice Initiative to promote justice and combat historical inequities throughout the county.
Marlowe has navigated the journey for justice since he was elected in 2017. He said a 2019 trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, marked a pivotal moment in the acknowledgement of Newberry’s past, and he feels NEW BERRY is another step in the right direction.
“I hope that they walk away having a conversation,” he said about audience members’ experiences. “I hope they walk away with a little bit more understanding, I hope that they walk away with a little more compassion.”
As for the play itself, Travis hopes that it has ongoing impact and spawns further artistic productions.
“Maybe there’s a one-woman show that’s about Stella Young [Long’s wife], maybe there’s a short film about their love story, maybe there’s a longer documentary that comes out about Boisy Long,” he said. “Because the truth is, so little is known about this event that we are the first artistic reflection of it, so we hope to plant a seed that can blossom into fruit and flowers — new berries.”