Breaking Free

An hour-long recounting of the trial for manumission of Biddy Mason, in Los Angeles in 1856. Background material regarding California as a free state, the size and ranching industry of LA, and the coming Civil War. Carefully researched and meant to be read aloud.


ROBERT SMITH Owner of a small ranch
HARTWELL & COTTRELL Friends of Smith
BIDDY MASON Thirty-eight; “slave” of Robert Smith
ELLEN Biddy’s seventeen-year-old daughter
HARRIET Biddy’s eight-year-old daughter
HANNAH Also Smith’s “slave”; believed to be Biddy’s half-sister
NATHANIEL Hannah’s ten-year-old son
JANE Hannah’s eight-year-old daughter
BOB OWENS Owner of the local livery stable, once a slave in Texas
CHARLES OWENS Bob’s son, nineteen
VAQUERO Mexican man who works for Owens in the livery
FRANK CARPENTER Sheriff of Los Angeles
BENJAMIN HAYES Judge of First California Circuit
ABEL STEARNS & J.B. WINSTON Judge Hayes’ friends


Scene 1

[Outside the two small slave cabins of Robert Marion Smith’s modest ranch. Charles Owens enters stage and knocks at the open door of one.]
CHARLES: Is anyone to home?
ELLEN: [coming out]  Just me. Except Aunt Hannah, she asleep.  Don’t talk too loud.
CHARLES: I guess you’re the one I’m coming to see anyways.  Where is everybody?
ELLEN: Mama havin a storyfest with all the kids down by the stream, so Hannah can sleep. How come you so late?
CHARLES: We had a lot of horses out today, and Daddy won’t put away no horse without he rubs it down and gives it oats.
ELLEN: Well, anyway, I been waiting for you, because I got big news.
CHARLES: What is it?
ELLEN: Mr. Smith says we going to Texas.
CHARLES: Texas!  When?
ELLEN: Tomorrow week.  He says he can’t rightly make a go of it here, and he’s sold the place.
CHARLES: Lots of folks doing just fine here.  He’s afraid you all gonna run off.
ELLEN: We kin run off just the same in Texas, cain’t we?
CHARLES: No sucha thing, on accounta it’s a slave state.
ELLEN: Slave state!  Why, Mr. Smith stood right here, just about where you’re standing, and told Mama that we’d be free to come and go in Texas same as here.
CHARLES: Free to come and go!  What does he mean by that? I thought you had to get his permission to go off the property.
ELLEN: He says that’s for our own safety is all.  But he says that he gonna set us up with our own house some day in Texas, same way he gonna do here.
ELLEN: That’s exactly what Mama said.  She so mad she spittin nails.  “He said we gonna be free in Utah, and then he said we gonna be free here, and now he says Texas,”  that’s what she said.  She says she ain’t walked all that way to turn and start walking back!
CHARLES: Texas ain’t no free state!  I oughta know! Isn’t that where my whole family started and didn’t Daddy have to buy hisself and every single one of us for good money?
ELLEN: Maybe it’s changed.
CHARLES: Why should it change?  Me and my daddy we can read the STAR and the way I understand it you can’t bring no free colored person into Texas.  When you hit the border, you’re a slave, same as you hit the border here, you was free.
ELLEN: Free, slave. Don’t notice no difference.  The work is the same and so’s the food, I guess.
CHARLES: You be noticin it when he sell you.
ELLEN: Sell us!  How can he sell us when he says we been together all this time, and we’re family.

I have led readings of this play in high schools and churches. I’m always a little amazed when people, especially African American people, have no idea when the Civil War was, or whether California was a free or slave state. If you’re a teacher, this play will give you a lot of opportunities to slip in this kind of information as “explaining the play”.

The other thing this play shows is that one reason Biddy was able to get information, and to stick up for herself, is because she had a skill—midwifery—that people wanted. She was still extraordinarily brave in speaking up for herself, especially in front of the local rich ranchers, but she had the underlying confidence that she could make her way in the world. This is something well worth emphasizing to a high school class.