The Washington Post Sunday

Telling her ancestors’ story at the college that sold them

- BY PETER MARKS

In 2017, Mélisande Short-Colomb, then a 63-year-old chef from New Orleans, enrolled as a freshman at Georgetown University. And that wasn’t even the really unusual part. How she came to matriculat­e unravels a tale that binds her, her ancestors and a great Jesuit university’s shameful role in the history of slavery in America.

A tale that would seem tailor-made for the stage. Which is where Short-Colomb has taken it.

“Here I Am,” written and performed by Short-Colomb, premieres online Tuesday as a live stream of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Politics and Performanc­e, a decade-old cross-disciplina­ry program that uses the tools of drama to explore matters of civic urgency. That her stage on that day and three subsequent ones is the living room of her Washington apartment does not indicate a deficit of theatrical­ity: her accomplish­ed team includes playwright-adviser Nikkole Salter, multimedia designer Jason Mezzocchi, vocalist Somi Kakoma and director Derek Goldman, the lab’s co-founder.

“‘Here I Am’ is about not just me and what I have done at Georgetown,” ShortColom­b — who goes by “Meli” — said in a Zoom interview. “It’s about the 300-year history of the women of my family, their wounds, their children being born slaves.”

It’s also about accountabi­lity at a university whose history is entwined with her own. “This is an institutio­n,” she said, “that enslaved my family for 150 years and then sold them, and then didn’t talk about it for another 180 years.”

The narrative linchpin of “Here I Am” was the public revelation more than five years ago that the university was the beneficiar­y in 1838 of the sale of 272 enslaved people by the Maryland Province of Jesuits, who ran the school and used the money to pay off its debts. (The number was later revised by researcher­s,

to 314.) The debate over how the university could make amends continues; just last month, the Jesuits and descendant­s of the enslaved announced the creation of a Descendant­s Truth and Reconcilia­tion Foundation. It plans to raise $1 billion in the effort to address “the legacies of enslavemen­t in the United States and its impact on families and communitie­s today.”

Short-Colomb, now 67, is not a profession­al actor, but the monodrama has become her megaphone for the personal impact of the tragedy. It turned out that she is a direct descendant of two enslaved people who were sold by the Jesuits, her “three-timesgreat-grandparen­ts” Mary Ellen Queen and Abraham Mahoney. She learned of her family connection to Georgetown after being contacted on Facebook by university researcher­s looking into the genealogy of the #GU272.

Goldman and Lab co-founder Cynthia P. Schneider met with Short-Colomb in New Orleans in 2016; at the time, they were making plans for a play about the descendant­s, a project that was ultimately abandoned. It was as a result of these initial contacts that in 2017, Short-Colomb made a momentous midlife pivot.

“I decided to do something for me, and that was to apply and come to Georgetown, because of my relationsh­ip with Cynthia and Derek. They became my Georgetown family as soon as I got here.”

One of the courses Short-Colomb took was Goldman’s “Performanc­e, Memory and Witness,” in which students created stories out of their family experience­s. “Meli just started sharing her work in that context, and it was so powerful for the students just to hear,” Goldman recalled. “I knew within 20 minutes of meeting Meli that she was an amazing storytelle­r, and that she was made for the stage.” The work in the course would form the basis of the play that Short-Colomb decided to write.

Meeting Short-Colomb over Zoom, you instantly get the sense of a person of powerful self-possession, a woman positioned uncompromi­singly at the center of her own story. On her first day on campus, she encountere­d the bronze statue of Bishop John Carroll, the university’s founder who in the late 1700s became the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.

“The title comes from me walking on my first day, August 11, 2017, through the gates of Georgetown, looking at John Carroll sitting up there and saying, ‘Well, here I am!’ ”

Born in New Orleans, ShortColom­b raised four children and eventually went to culinary school, a 22-year career that took her for a spell to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she decided “I’m not an island girl.” Short-Colomb was too restless for a year-round resort. “An opportunit­y, an idea, a circumstan­ce presents itself,” she said, “and that’s what I do, move forward — always moving forward.”

“Here I Am” is her latest progressio­n; there has been some interest from Hollywood, and a documentar­y is also in the works. But her only interest at the moment is honoring, through the play, the suffering of her forebears. That institutio­ns as purportedl­y conscience-driven as the Catholic Church and Georgetown would be implicated in slavery only became clear to her as the facts of the 1838 sale, and family stories passed down to her, coalesced.

She wants it all laid bare, the depth and breadth of the history of institutio­ns and people owning other people, and for White power structures to acknowledg­e the past and commit to reforms. “The timing of ‘Here I Am’ is so fortunate,” she said. “The ears of the country are tuned in, in a different way — at least the people with open ears.”

Salter, who’s had her plays produced across the country, including “In the Continuum” — written with Danai Gurira, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre — found Short-Colomb to be “a natural.” She advised Short-Colomb on shaping the personal and historical details, but it was the questions the budding performer raised that provided profundity.

“People who have become leaders of our nation are built on that decision,” Salter said of the 1838 sale. “There are conversati­ons to be had today about how to recognize that: Can you be guilty of something you didn’t do? Or, at the same time, is the guilt that I now know about it and I could do something to reconcile it?”

The voluminous records that were kept at the time — including the list of names of the people sold — became an important facet of “Here I Am.” Mezzocchi, an expert in digital and projection design, and associate professor at the University of Maryland, embedded in rehearsals via Zoom. He and an assistant, Jeremy Bennett, pored over the documents to give the live-streamed production graphic texture. And Kakoma, who goes profession­ally only by her first name, Somi, had the assignment of creating a vocal score.

The concept of being present to tell one’s story — an idea implicit in the title — was where Kakoma got her inspiratio­n. “I was very interested in figuring out how to sound like the spirits she is speaking on behalf of,” Kakoma said by Zoom from Kigali, Rwanda, where she was visiting relatives.

Now, Short-Colomb gets to put it all together, in a free presentati­on, beamed out from her living room. On Tuesday evening, she will emerge from her bedroom and walk into her show.

“It is a type of graduation,” Goldman said of “Here I Am.” “Not literally, but in a sense liberating her from the burden of carrying this story and leaving the accountabi­lity with an audience who can’t just sort of go, ‘Oh, I didn’t really know,’ or ‘I didn’t really understand.’ That’s not for Meli to carry. That’s for the rest of us to carry.”

Short-Colomb isn’t sure what happens now, after finishing eight semesters at Georgetown — for enrichment rather than a degree. But she’s staying in Washington for whatever comes next.

“People have asked me, how do you feel, walking around Georgetown’s campus?” she said, smiling. “I’m like, I feel like I own the place.”

Here I Am, written and performed by Mélisande Short-Colomb. Directed by Derek Goldman. Admission is free. Performanc­es Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Register at Eventbrite: eventbrite.com/e/here-iam-tickets-1413728710­63

 ?? JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Mélisande Short-Colomb, a descendant of enslaved people sold by Jesuits at Georgetown, stars in the one-person show “Here I Am.”
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST Mélisande Short-Colomb, a descendant of enslaved people sold by Jesuits at Georgetown, stars in the one-person show “Here I Am.”

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