It’s a story worth telling.
In 1888, a black couple established the Hotel Berry on Court Street here in Athens. Edward and Mattie Berry would operate the hotel for decades, and the building stood for 82 years until it was demolished to make room for a parking lot in 1974.
In the early years of the hotel’s existence, it was Mattie who decided to put a bible in every guest room. The idea of placing small toiletry items in the rooms? Edward and Mattie’s also. That these ideas soon took hold in hotels across the country is testament to how influential the Hotel Berry was in its time.
Playwright Jacqueline Lawton, commissioned by Tantrum Theater to dramatize the Berrys’ story, welcomed the opportunity to delve into a mostly forgotten piece of Athens history. The Chapel Hill, N.C., resident brought with her some serious credentials as writer, dramaturg, teacher and advocate for “theatre action.”
“I had been sent an amazing packet of information,” Lawton said, “and I reached out to the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society to make sure they were just as excited as I was.”
The society, a non-profit that works to preserve “the history and ongoing concerns of Black Americans in Southeast Ohio and throughout the region,” gave its enthusiastic stamp of approval and became an important partner, providing invaluable input as Lawton put the story together for the stage.
A key element of the drama fell into place when Lawton discovered a long-term rivalry between Edward Berry, who had political ambitions, and another prominent black citizen of Athens, Andrew J. Davison. Although both men sought to improve the economic and social standings of black citizens, their philosophies were often at odds.
“Edward followed the Booker T. Washington idea of ‘keep our heads down and work hard,’” Lawton said, “while Andrew agreed more with the Dubois argument.” Author and activist W.E.B. Dubois believed in a more assertive “fight for your rights” approach.
The play takes place in 1912, when an important guest – former President Theodore Roosevelt – is coming to town and staying at the Hotel Berry. Spoilers would be mean; this is a drama you need to check out for yourself.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, “Hotel Berry” opened last week on Nov. 17 and continues performances Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1-3 at the Forum Theater in the RTV Building at Ohio University.
Lawton, an effervescent woman whose next play will be called “The Inferior Sex,” thinks the story of the Hotel Berry may be illuminating.
“What’s going to be most surprising for some people is that there were black folks who were very successful in that time and in this place,” she said. “I hope young people are inspired by that.”
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