“Last Seen” at Vasey

Grant Carter Staff Writer

In post-Civil War years, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves began searching for lost family members and friends they had been separated from. Occurring in an age before modern means of communication, what remains are hundreds of letters to newspapers around the country, all written by those pleading for help in their search for lost loved one. Directed by Associate Professor and Chair of Villanova’s Theatre Department, Dr. Valerie Joyce, in collaboration with Dr. Judith Giesberg, a Villanova History Professor and Director of the Last Seen Project, “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families” has a unique way of quantifying the chaos of the situation. Told in 75 different voices, the show is an impactful and lively glimpse into a largely untold side of American history.  

In Vasey Theatre, the set is simple. The floor is empty, besides a blank screen against a wall, projecting the phrase “Information Wanted.” The actors – or readers – enter in rounds through five entrances around the stage, their only props being prints of the letters. As far as one can tell, they are reading in their own voices. Based on the content, many of them are close in age to the original writers. There is no particular order to the letters read, chronological or otherwise, as many of the narratives tend to skip around a greater portion of the nineteenth century. Most of them follow a similar format: the writer introduces themselves, the person being searched for, perhaps tells the story of how they were separated or names additional family members and typically includes location where the lost person was last seen, hence the name of the show. Every story told was like a new piece of the puzzle, but even by the end it felt as though so many pieces were missing.

Occasionally, I would hear whispered gasps from other audience members. I wondered if maybe their hometown had been named, or if one of the letters had mentioned a familiar name. For a show that featured little movement, besides the transition of the stories, it was very enthralling. Even in such a dark room, I could sense how invested the audience was in the stories. Few people stirred or got up throughout, and I imagine some felt uncomfortable with the more graphic stories of family separation. I had few expectations walking into “Last Seen,” but it was a welcome change to my nightly routine. It left me with a lot to think about, especially with such an explosive ending.