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Zania Cummings to Portray Woman She Admires in “Finding Freedom: the Journey of Robert Smalls”



By: Claudie Benjamin, Guest Writer

Actor Zania Cummings (above) will play Hannah Smalls, wife of Robert Smalls in the upcoming production of Finding Freedom: the Journey of Robert Smalls, a new play with story by Teralyn Reiter, script developed by JaMeeka Holloway, Celeste Jennings, Carolina Randall Williams, and Teralyn Reiter, and Gullah Cultural Consultant Dr. Jessica Berry. The work, Charleston Gaillard Center’s first theater commission, premieres for the public on October 6th.  

Over a smoothie and sandwich lunch in a local coffee house, Zania holds up her cell phone displaying a photo of Hannah Smalls. She places it alongside her face.

“People say there’s a resemblance,” she said.

This is a stretch. The young actor with a vibrant smile is wearing multiple large, gold earrings and a luxuriant Senegalese twist hairstyle that reaches her knees. Her look is “very now” and seems to have little in common with Hannah’s 19th Century portrait in which she appears to be a severe, older woman, wearing an elegant dress seated in a formal studio pose.

But, the two women most definitely have something in common as one is playing the other on stage. Zania has deeply researched her character and is thoroughly admiring of her. It seems Hannah  was an important influence on her husband.

“Smalls would never have accomplished the things he did without her encouragement,” Zania said. She adds that Smalls was also greatly influenced by his mother.

Smalls was well known in his lifetime. In the contemporary era he has been the subject of books and articles and some TV productions but as Zania points out, Smalls has not received the same attention as other significant, ground-breaking leaders of our country.  “He should be honored like Lincoln and Martin Luther King.”  Smalls was born and grew up enslaved on a Beaufort plantation 1839. Once he reached young manhood, his master allowed him as a young man  to work in Charleston where he became familiar with marine and dock operations. He met Hannah, also enslaved, who was working as a chambermaid at a Charleston Hotel. The two married and had two children. Determined to gain freedom for his family, on May 13, 1862, Smalls commandeered the Confederate USS Planter steering it into the Union Blockade off the coast of Charleston  Harbor. As described in a summary provided by the Gaillard, Smalls  freed the crew and offered the ship to the Union. He then went to Washington to  persuade President Lincoln to accept Black men into the Union Army. He later served five  terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and helped create the legislation and framework for the first free and mandatory public school system in South Carolina, which influenced school systems in the South.  The play will run only two days for the general public October 6 and October 7.   In addition several performances will be performed for thousands of Lowcountry students.

Asked about the challenge of memorizing lines, Zania says when you’ve prepared and made the effort to really know your character, the way they talk and what they say comes naturally.

The ensemble came together in early September for the first of several  tech meetings to ensure that the script rang true.  “There will be members of the family in the audience and we want it to feel right,” Zania said.

Hannah Smalls

Zania is very excited about her role, the cast and those who work behind the scenes in production. She gives a special shout out to the director JaMeeka Holloway for her vision and commitment to delivering an outstanding production.

Zania was born and grew up in Charleston. Her parents, originally from Charleston, lived in NYC but moved back to Charleston where they raised their eight children. Zania is the youngest.

“I never had any authority,” she said.

Her talent and enjoyment for performing however was appreciated and encourage by her parents. I sang in the choir at church and my parents would ask me to make speeches at family gatherings. After graduating from High School, Zania moved to Brooklyn. She regularly auctioned and was successful in securing some roles. A nannying gig also helped pay the rent. Covid and the shut down of theaters “changed everything.” She was concerned that Charleston might now have the exuberant arts community she had become used to in NYC. But she’s found opportunities here that have been very encouraging. She performed in a production of “Antigone” at the Gibbes Museum and curated the “Afrofuturist Art Exhibition, 3000Black”.  She said she considered it to be very successful.   Zania is also a poet and yoga teacher.  She said she has an event in October, “that merges both of these world.”

Now, with the upcoming opening of the Robert Smalls play approaching, Zania, like others involved with the production, finds it hard to contain their excitement.  It’s a not so secret hope that it will go on the road. Will Zania’s family be in the audience, they’ll all be there,” she answered.

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