Campus & Community

Discovering justice: The (re)trial of Anthony Burns:

5 min read

GSE hosts dramatic re-enactment of an 1854 trial that tested Fugitive Slave Act

Illustration of Anthony
Illustration by Alec Solomita

By the time the dignified gent in top hat and coattails strolled forward to greet the crowd, nearly 100 people had packed into the Gutman Conference Center. “Good evening, senators, and welcome to the session of the Massachusetts State Legislature.”

It’s worth noting that the session was happening in the past and that none of the audience members whisked back to 1852 were actually legislators. Addressing us as councilmen and women is just one of the many details that lends the production of “The Trial of Anthony Burns” – and Discovering Justice as a whole – a distinctiveness that has attracted international attention.

The interactive play performed by Theatre Espresso is part of Arts and the Law, one of five programs run by Discovering Justice: the James D. St. Clair Court Education Project. The nonprofit organization uses literacy-based curricula and theater to teach public school students about democracy and the legal system. “Anthony Burns,” which is regularly performed at the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse, was staged at the Gutman Library during the most recent Askwith Education Forum. Sponsored by the Graduate School of Education (GSE), the forums’ presentations and discussions aim to “open doors to innovations in education,” explained Associate in Education Evangeline Harris Stefanakis. Past sessions have included dialogues with authors and experts who are pioneers in fields ranging from linguistics to eugenics to teacher recruitment.

Discovering Justice was highlighted in the series as a unique teaching tool. Beyond bringing history out of the classroom and animating it with life, the program opens the courthouse as the civic space it was intended to be, a place where people learn how to be citizens. It is also an opportunity for judges and lawyers to engage students and watch them debate and think critically. Through Discovering Justice’s other programs, like Legal Apprenticeships, which culminates in students trying cases before a “celebrity jury,” professionals interact with young people in a capacity that exceeds their regular disciplinary responsibilities.

“History can be boring for students. By making names into real people, students feel sympathy; they argue for or against what’s going on,” said Beth Dunakin, coordinator of Arts and the Law, and co-writer with Wendy Lement of “Anthony Burns.” In creating the play, they used a number of primary texts such as journals and newspaper articles, all of which are referred to in the script.

In a production of “Anthony Burns” – or one of the three other plays currently staged by Arts and the Law – middle and high school students watch actors dramatically re-enact a historic trial in an actual courtroom (the Moakley Courthouse is a regular site, but Worcester and Springfield courts have been added as magnets.) Then the floor is opened to students, who have looked at the case beforehand. They can ask characters (read: actors) questions before voting. With “Anthony Burns,” which revolves around a judge’s dilemma of upholding the widely contested Fugitive Slave Law, students must grapple with the morality of the judge’s decision as they decide whether to impeach him. To make the occasion more immediate, a federal judge is on hand to field questions and draw parallels to contemporary issues she faces on the bench.

“Judges are foreboding figures when they’re up on the stand and out of reach, [but] kids really engage in dialogue here. It’s the only place in the country where judges and lawyers are volunteering in this way. And it’s quite powerful. A lot of the students are from the city, maybe from families where there’ve been encounters with the judiciary that weren’t necessarily positive,” said Maria Karagianis, founding executive director of Discovering Justice and former Boston Globe reporter.

“[Discovering Justice] demystifies the third branch of our government. Kids have a misunderstanding of the law from what they know from television. There have been a lot of hyped-up trials, like O.J., so kids come in with a lot of misconceptions…. [Then] A very amazing kind of dialogue happens in an informal way. It invites them into the system and says, ‘Let’s explore this.’” A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Karagianis serves on the Divinity School alumni council and as an appointed director of the Harvard Alumni Association.

Perhaps Stefanakis, a trustee of Discovering Justice, summed it up best in her introduction of the post-performance panel, which included Karagianis, playwrights Dunakin and Lement, and U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, a University overseer.

“It is community education at its finest; it’s community education in civic places that students from public schools enter to learn from lawyers and educators at the same time,” she said. The discussion went long into the night, with attendants raising more questions than there was time to ask.

After the exchange, Dunakin, noting that this was the first time the play was performed before a group of educators, homed in on a universal effect of drama. “We peeked people’s curiosity about what actually happened to key players in the case, which is what happens with the kids.”