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Book celebrates decades of bringing history to life

April 29, 2009

KALAMAZOO--What began as a small concept of teaching history on stage has led to the soon-to-be released book, "The Journey Begins," by a Western Michigan University professor of theatre.

Dr. Von H. Washington, director of WMU's Multicultural Theatre Program, has combined his three most celebrated stage productions into a book which will be released during a book release celebration from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 9, at the Trimpe Building on the WMU campus.

Washington, who is from Albion, Mich., has staged his historical plays across southern Michigan, including Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor, as well as in the Detroit area.

"Years ago, I made a promise to many of the people who faithfully attended our productions that I would one day make my stories available for everyone to read," Washington says. "I was especially pleased when the request for them came from teachers, librarians and the parents of the thousands of children that I was performing before. I thought at the time that this is what I have always wanted, for people to like my stories well enough to want to have a personal copy of them. So now, I have kept my promise and I'm hoping that they are still interested in those copies."

The book contains three of Washington's most celebrated and treasured storytelling creations, "Seven Stops to Freedom," "The Legend of Sojourner Truth" and "The River to Cross." "Seven Stops to Freedom" was commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to shed light on Michigan's involvement with the Underground Railroad, "The Legend of Sojourner Truth" was created to highlight Sojourner's life in Battle Creek as her statute was being unveiled and "The River to Cross" chronicles the William Bright Conner family's escape from slavery in North Carolina in 1849 and their subsequent decision to settle in Covert, Mich.

The cover of the book states, "Celebrating the oral traditions of ancient West African storytellers, these dramatic productions have been performed hundreds of times in the United States and abroad. 'The Journey Begins' presents an accurate and in-depth view of the African American experience through literature and the performing arts."

During the book-signing event, Washington, his wife Fran, co-founder of Washington Productions Inc., and their son Von Washington Jr., principal of Kalamazoo Central High School, will join him for the readings.

Washington has written more than 25 theatrical pieces. He calls this latest venture as an author "Act III of my career," which is a rebirthing of his pursuit of the publishing and production of his plays on a national scene. His plays began using his hometown of Albion as a backdrop and have emerged to include places across the globe.

On Sept. 13, his newest creation, "Kentucky Raid Diorama," will be performed in Cassopolis during the seventh International Festival. As does "Kentucky at Sunrise," it tells the story of brave abolitionist Quakers in Cass County, who, in August 1847 were joined by free blacks and townspeople to prevent 13 Kentuckians from capturing nine African Americans who had escaped slavery. Actors will be recruited from the community to bring the raid to life.

Washington has been directing WMU's Multicultural Theatre program for the past 20 years and before that directed African American theatre programs at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. Among his many awards, he is a recipient of the States Arts Achievement Award, the Kalamazoo Community Medal of the Arts Award and has had a day named for him in Southfield, Mich. In a 12-year military career, he was decorated with two Meritorious Service Medals, a Bronze Star Medal for his work in Vietnam and an Air Force Accommodation Medal. He was recently inducted into the WMU School of Communication's Alumni Academy.

His plays have received recognition throughout the years and are being performed across the country by various theatre production companies. This latest venture as author is something Washington hopes to continue, as he allows schools and others to read the plays they have enjoyed on stage for years.

Washington is very pleased his work is being produced because, as he puts it, "I was never afforded an opportunity to hear stories about life from my perspective when I was a school-aged child. It pleases me to no end to know that my vision of the African American experience is now being shared with people all over the world."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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