Mere hours before leading the Continental Army in the 1776 Christmas Day defeat of Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey, General George Washington is discussing and arguing concepts of freedom, war, and love with his closest companion, the enslaved man William “Billy” Lee.
A new play by Ken Jones and Daryl L. Harris, both theater professors at Northern Kentucky University, Billy & George focuses on the relationship between the two titular men, and in so doing puts a rare spotlight on Lee, the unexpected confidante who influenced Washington’s perspective on peace, freedom, and independence. The play is now gearing up for its world-premiere at Avant Bard Theatre.
“Ken and Daryl’s remarkable play provides us with a thought-provoking look at a key moment in our country’s history via the relationship between our first president, George Washington, and his slave, William ‘Billy’ Lee,” says the show’s director, DeMone Seraphin. “My sincere hope is that this journey back will propel us forward into our greater selves, so that yesterday’s missteps don’t remain tomorrow’s pitfalls.”
With its nuanced portrait of an interaction and a relationship overlooked by history that nonetheless offers insightful contemporary relevance, Billy & George follows in the tradition of Sankofa, according to Seraphin, who explains that the literal translation of the word and symbol from the Akan tribe in Ghana is, “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind…. The symbol Sankofa embodies the Akan people’s quest for knowledge based on critical examination, and intelligent and patient investigation.”
“In writing the play,” Jones says, “Daryl and I wanted to give Billy Lee a voice, a sound, a body, and to make sure that the soul of the man, joined with George’s, [is] still fighting for freedom, for love, and for life.”
Billy & George is a notable work from many angles, including from the perspective of the show’s producer. Just two years ago, Avant Bard Theatre was close to shutting down due to the double-whammy of struggling through the pandemic and the November 2020 death of then-Artistic Director Tom Prewitt.
The company survived because a group of independent artists teamed up for an organizational restructuring in which five “producing partners” collectively lead the company rather than just one artistic director.
The new season reflects the company’s bold new leadership and style, with Billy & George followed by provocative modern-day reimaginings of two classic tales, one focused on ancient Rome’s most famous ruler, the other the Greek god of wine, pleasure, and revelry.
First up in March is a new Julius Caesar, in which “an ensemble of nine actors dismantle this traditional story to explain how leadership is not defined by Caesar’s ambition or Brutus’s and Anthony’s famous funeral speeches, but by the shifting personalities and demands of the citizenry.” Set in a post-2016 America, the reimagining, helmed by Kathleen Akerley, asks, “Is consensus even possible?”
In May, the season wraps up with Pulitzer Prize finalist Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane, a climate change-centered wild comedy in which the god Dionysus is transformed as Diane, a lesbian permaculture gardener from Vermont with supernatural abilities and a “secret mission to seduce mortal followers and restore the earth to its natural state” — starting with four housewives in suburban New Jersey.
Billy & George runs from Jan. 19 to Feb. 11. At the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St., in Arlington, Va. Tickets are $40, or pay-what-you-can for preview performances and Saturday matinees.
Visit www.avantbard.org or call 703-418-4808.
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