Pin Points Theater, based in Southeast Washington, presented 1001 Black Inventions at Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie Sept. 15. The play, which has been touring for 30 years, sheds light on the ingenuity of African-American inventors. The church’s Deaf, Christian Education and Youth & Young Adult ministries presented the production.
More than 300 people of all ages packed into the church, anxious to learn about black inventors. Even one youngster attending wore a T-shirt decorated with items invented by African-Americans.
Pin Points’s production of the play they call 1001 was sought “because they don’t teach African-American history in the schools anymore,” said Ann Powell, Co-Chair of the Deaf Ministry at the church.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Weaver, the church’s senior pastor, reinforced her sentiment on the importance of learning African-American history.
“For a lot of our young people, it’s not even a matter of forgetting, they don’t even know,” Weaver said. “Our young people need to be inspired. Even in the face of opposition and all the negative portrayals of black folk they can know they come from a very rich history and can therefore make a difference in the present.”
The play covered well-known inventors such as famed scientist Dr. George Washington Carver who is known for creating over 300 uses for the peanut. Less well-known inventors were included, too, such as Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who was one of the first to successfully perform open-heart surgery, and Jan Ernst Matzeliger, who created the shoe-last machine.
In the opening scene, four actors come on stage performing as a giant computer and rattle off a list of inventions by African-Americans such as the boomerang, coffee, tetracycline, karate and castor oil.
Ersky Freeman then takes the stage and convincingly pretends to have a heart attack. The audience started whispering in response “get him some water.”
Freeman recalls this moment and several others that he enjoys performing at churches. “From the umms and ahhs of the audience I love church crowds because they talk more than we do on stage,” he said.
The heart attack scene quickly segues to Williams and his struggle to perform open-heart surgery at all black Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1893.
Freeman has acted out this scene countless times as the co-founder of Pin Points Theater and co-creator of “1001.” The theater company was founded in 1980 and “1001” has been touring since 1983.
“1001” was originally conceived as a book idea but Freeman then translated the idea to the stage. He was inspired to write about black inventors because, he said, the “stories were so unique and interesting.”
Freeman also hopes that over three decades the play has taught Black youth the importance of Black inventors.
“All they may know is the guys hanging out on the corner and we try to make sure they know this play isn’t about some dead people. We show them how this [African-American] genius is a part of everything they do,” he said.
Pin Points is a small organization and performance fees help fund the theater productions but their primary goal is to engage youth from impoverished areas with educational and entertaining development programs.
This summer Pin Points performed at Anacostia High School and introduced youth theater and performing arts to young people with severe reading deficiencies. Currently the organization works with at-risk youth at Cardozo High School in a year-round program titled “The Talented Tenth” which mentors students from ninth to 12th grades.
Youth work is a major part of their mission but Pin Points is most renowned for their plays.
In the last scene of the play a family tries to move through life without critical black inventions like watches, fire extinguishers and traffic lights. The children in the family start furiously asking about all these black inventions. “Daddy what’s an iron, Daddy what’s a gas mask, Daddy what’s a rocket support system and Daddy what’s a Justin Beiber?” The audience belted out laughing.
Freeman and Pin Points keep presenting 1001 because he believes young people are significantly improved with a better knowledge of black inventors and creators.
“People talk about making history but the truth is history makes us,” Freeman said.