CoastLine: Alicia Inshiradu on her twenty-plus-year passion project about 1898 and why Wilmington needs a catharsis to heal
What The River Knows opens on Thalian Hall’s mainstage on November 10th, the 124th anniversary of the 1898 white supremacist massacre. Playwright Alicia Inshiradu has worked on what she calls a "passion project" for more than two decades.
What The River Knows is a passion project. After more than two decades of work, it’s coming alive on a Wilmington, North Carolina stage for writer Alicia Inshiradu. Since the late 1990s, this fictionalized story of the city’s coup d'état has taken the form of a feature-length screenplay, a short film, and two previous attempts to bring the story to a live theater audience. The third time, more than 20 years after the first, seems to be the charm.
What The River Knows opens on Thalian Hall’s mainstage on the anniversary of the 1898 white supremacist massacre. Under that same roof 124 years earlier, Alfred Waddell delivered a speech promising to win the election at any cost, even if it meant choking “the Cape Fear [River] with [black] carcasses”. Waddell was one of the architects of the coordinated attack, which forced duly-elected Black officials out of office at gunpoint, killed an unknown number of Black citizens, and terrorized the Black population so that many fled and never returned. Local journalist and historian Ben Steelman compares November 10, 1898 to a botched lobotomy performed on the port city.
A reckoning of sorts has begun as those studying the coup discover descendants of both victims and perpetrators, locally and around the United States. The New Hanover County Remembrance Project, spearheaded by genealogist Tim Pinnick is one community undertaking. Third Person Project, created by John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel is another; it’s an effort to find new information about the massacre in the form of old newspapers.
As more people join the conversation and more and brighter lights shine on the coup, the collective understanding of the long-term impact deepens.
Alicia Inshiradu is contributing her own work to this reckoning, but her journey has not been smooth or easy.
She started in the late 1990s writing a fictionalized version of Wilmington’s bloody 1898 massacre. By 2001, she was planning to open what was then called The Dance of Redemption at the Community Arts Center in downtown Wilmington. But just before opening, her two lead actors abandoned the production.
Years later, she hired Steve Vernon of Big Dawg Productions to help her with the script and workshop the piece. Finally, What The River Knows was ready to open at Thalian Hall, but it was August 2021 and Covid-19 was a real threat. So the production was shut down.
Alicia Inshiradu is a filmmaker, writer, and was the Founding President of the Black Arts Alliance, which ultimately became the North Carolina Black Film Festival. She is also a North Carolina native and longtime Wilmington resident.