Orphan Train: Play uncovers hidden part of American history

Nov 25, 2013

Credit courtesy of What A Do Theatre

From the late 1800s to the 1920s, about two hundred and fifty thousand orphans were taken off the streets of New York City and shipped out west to be adopted. This Friday, What A Do Theatre in Springfield will shed light on this hidden piece of American history. Brittany Slater is the co-director for the play “Orphan Train.”

“Our story follows a young, Kansas housewife. She and her husband and their family have a child and end up losing that child. And he ends up going on the orphan train,” Slater says. “So we get to follow his story through the abusive placing agents that he is placed with on the orphan train and the story of his parents who are dealing with his loss back in Kansas.”

Though the play is historically based, but it also has some mystery. Farm wife Nettie thinks her son is dead at first, but she has a vision that he will return to her. Her son Jake, played by Hunter King, is also accompanied by a spirit character on the train.

“My magical friend is Grace. She’s kind of my guardian angel,” says King. “And she protects me from any danger that I ever come in, which helps a lot in most cases because she is the only person that I will talk to. And she is the only person that I really trust.”

And Jake needs plenty of help with placing agents like Mr. and Mrs. Leech who are basically selling the children as farm laborers. Adam Bielby plays Mr. Leech. He says the Leeches are looking for any way they can to make a profit off of the orphans.

“They really don’t care about the children at all because all they really see the children as are dollar signs,” says Bielby. “I think the orphan train…the idea behind it, what started it was probably a very noble idea and a very good thing with very good intentions behind it. Like anything else in life though cause everything can be used or abused. It was greatly abused. And it’s kind of what birthed our foster care system today which as you know is…does a lot of good, but I would probably say a lot more harm.”

Kristen Marie Stelter plays Mrs. Leech. She says many of the characters are trying to achieve the American Dream and that dream is different for all of them.

“What it means to the Leeches is money and survival,” says Stelter. “And what it means to other characters are, you know, the land that they’re losing and the family structure and how that’s centered around home.”

Bielby says the orphan train itself is only half of the story. The play takes place in 1929, just before the Great Depression.

“Almost every single story has an eminent crash approaching,” he says. “And the characters are very aware of, at some point, that this crash is coming. They’re either losing their land or their losing their freedom or they’re losing their way of life.”

Executive Director Randy Wolfe says part of the reason he picked this play was because of the 2008 recession. Many of us can relate to the hard economic times the characters are in and what it takes to get through it all.

“There is a very strong element of faith and family that is very prevalent from the beginning to the end of the show,” says Wolfe. “And strength—human emotional strength.”