Originally posted on www.phillytrib.com
The story of Henry “Box” Brown (1815 or 16–1897) — an inventive slave who mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia — has resonated with many over the years. Most recently, the story has affected hip-hop legend Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins, who has portrays the real-life title character in his latest musical.
Jenkins was first inspired by the 19th century slave during the The Henry Box Brown Festival, produced by the Brothers Network, in 2013.
“It was something that excited me,” recalled Jenkins. “The fact that he was able to mail himself to freedom, to me, he was a visionary. It shows that he was brilliant — and that’s something that I want to showcase.”
Using a tobacco shipping containing with a breathing hole punched out, Brown was mailed to a group of Philadelphia-based abolitionists. He developed his escape plan in 1848, when his then-pregnant wife and children were sold to a plantation in North Carolina. He was never reunited with his family, and would go on to forge a new life in England as a theater performer speaking out against slavery.
“One of the reasons I wanted to talk about him is because when people talk about slave history or African Americans being slaves they remove the humanity part of it and almost can’t see that these were people,” explained Jenkns. “And, I’m not just talking about white people; even Black people look at slavery as disconnected from them. Showing the humanity and the complexity of the person who was a slave sheds the light on his humanity.”
In 1875, Brown and his new family returned to the United States, where he continued to successfully perform as “Prof. H. Box Brown.” According to Biography.com, “Brown’s last recorded performance took place in Ontario, Canada, on February 26, 1889. The date and location of his death are unknown.”
“Henry Box Brown was a violinist, magician, hypnotist and sang on the church choir,” said Jenkins. “He paid a tariff for his [first]wife every month to pay her slave master — and was never late with the money no matter how hard of a struggle it was to come up with that money. He was definitely a complex person who was multifaceted. I think a lot of times those stories get missed.”
Starring Jenkins and directed by Phill Brown, “Henry Box Brown: The Musical” is playing from February 1-17 at the Community College of Philadelphia Bonnell Auditorium, 1700 Spring Garden Street. For more information, visit henryboxbrownmusical.com.