‘Gunpowder Joe’ tells story of Joseph Priestley in Bloomsburg
BLOOMSBURG — If you want to learn more about “Gunpowder Joe” — Joseph Priestley, whose historic house still stands along the Susquehanna River — you’ll want to see the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s latest production.
“We have three live science demonstrations in it,” said Laurie McCants, who is directing “Gunpowder Joe: Joseph Priestley, Pennsylvania and the American Experiment” through Feb. 5 at the Alvina Krause Theatre.
“One is about carbonation,” McCants said, explaining Priestley invented soda pop. Another shows how Priestley studied the interdependence of plants and animals.
For the third demonstration, Bucknell University engineering student Eli Raeker-Jordon has built a replica of an electricity-generating machine based on diagrams Priestley drew.
“It’s beautiful,” McCants said, adding that when the production is finished the machine will be donated to the historic Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, about 20 miles southwest of Bloomsburg.
But Priestley, perhaps best known as the person who “discovered” oxygen, was more than a scientist.
He was a theologian who dissented from the Church of England, a prolific writer, a strong supporter of the American and French revolutions — and not popular in all circles. In 1791, as the study guide to the play relates, “a week-long public riot destroyed his home, library of research, laboratory and chapels. The harassment continued and in 1794, Priestley sailed for America.”
Priestley hoped the young country would welcome a free thinker, and it did — at first.
“He was friends with John Adams and got to know Thomas Jefferson,” McCants said. “He was good friends with Benjamin Franklin. When he first arrived here, he was greeted as a hero of the revolution.”
But during Adams’ presidency, McCants said, “huge divisions developed between Adams and Jefferson. They were dear friends, but bitter political enemies. Both Adams and Jefferson wanted Priestley on their side, because he was well respected. He sided with Jefferson, which led to him being considered an enemy of the state, facing possible deportation.
“It’s an incredibly fascinating American story,” McCants said.
To help tell the story, playwright Anthony Clarvoe has crafted scenes that show Priestley with his wife, Mary; Adams with his wife, Abigail, and Jefferson with his mistress who was also his slave, Sally Hemings.
“I tried to create really juicy roles for the women as well as the men,” Clarvoe said. “Priestley, Adams and Jefferson each had a personal partnership with a woman who made his life as we know it possible. They were remarkable people in their own right. “
The cast of characters also includes two warring 18th century journalists — William “Peter Porcupine” Cobbet, who favored the Federalist idea of a strong central government and Benjamin Franklin Bache, who used the printing press he inherited from his famous grandfather and namesake to express the opposing view.
The play is BTE’s Project Discovery offering, which means high school students in nearby counties are welcome to attend morning shows for free or at a reduced price. (The fee is $9.50 for students in Luzerne County.) BTE suggests “Gunpowder Joe” may hold special interest for students of “American History and Politics; Chemistry and the History of Science; Religious Studies and Creative Writing.”
Young people will be familiar with many of the characters, McCants predicted, because they come from the same time frame as the characters in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and they’ll appreciate the modern feel the composer gave to some 18th century tunes.
For info on school programs, contact Paula Henry at 570-458-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT
IF YOU GO
What: ‘Gunpowder Joe: Joseph Priestley, Pennsylvania and the American Experiment’
Who: Presented by the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble
Where: Alvina Krause Theatre, 226 Center St., Bloomsburg
When: Through Feb. 5 with performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
Info: 570-784-8181 or bte.org.