Former British child actor turned race-conscious playwright stages 'Guided Tour' at Hibernian Hall

May 14, 2014 10:23 AM

Guided Tour Promo Pix .jpg
Lindsay Pettigrew (Elisabeth Rodgers) embraces a mask made by her lover, Joe Bell (Vincent Ernest Siders), in Hibernian Hall’s production of Peter Snoad’s "Guided Tour," running May 16-June 1.

By Clennon L. King, Globe Correspondent

Jamaica Plain playwright Peter Snoad knows few countries had more blood on their hands in the trans-Atlantic slave trade than his native England.

And he’s clear blood also stained the hands of wealthy New Englanders, who amassed fortunes on the backs of the enslaved Africans, especially in Rhode Island.

That is part of the narrative subtext of Snoad’s latest play, “Guided Tour,” which opens Friday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley St. in Boston.

“It’s unfortunate that as a country, we have the desire to heal from the legacy of slavery, and yet refuse to acknowledge the enormity of it, historically speaking,” said the 64-year-old former child actor in a recent phone interview.

“That’s why it’s so important for me to write about race and contemporary manifestations of racism.”

snoad.jpgWritten by Snoad (above) and directed by New York-based Heidi Grumelot, “Guided Tour” is slated for three consecutive weekends, including May 16-18, May 23-25, and May 30-June 1. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. except for two 3 p.m. matinees Sunday, May 18 and June 1.

“Guided Tour” is the story of a young law student’s efforts to exonerate a convicted black tour guide named Joe Bell, who spent 14 years behind bars for burning down a Gilded Age mansion in Rhode Island.

Set in a psychiatric unit, the play reveals some lessons about the irrational power of love.

The play is the second of four plays by Snoad dealing with race and class being produced by Hibernian Hall, where he is a playwright in residence.

“I've spent most of my working life writing and fund-raising for social justice organizations, so, to some degree, my plays are an extension of that commitment," he said.

Snoad’s journey from an affluent childhood in England to penning race-conscious plays in New England has been circuitous.

The younger of two sons, Snoad grew up in the tony Kensington section of London, walking distance from Kensington Palace where Queen Victoria was born, and Prince William and Catherine currently live.

The neighborhood is not far from Fleet Street, the historic hub of Britain's newspaper industry, where his father was once a publishing executive and his mother a secretary.

At age 5, Snoad auditioned at his grade school for a speaking role in the 1956 film “A Town Like Alice” starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. He was cast as an orphan in an epic World War II love story between a British refugee and an Australian prisoner of war.

“I spent my sixth birthday on the movie set, ” he recalled with a laugh.

For six weeks, a limo picked Snoad up at 5 a.m., shuttling him to a soundstage at London’s Pinewood Studio where he and other child actors were tutored between scenes.

After the film, his parents insisted on life returning to normal, despite a casting offer for another movie.

Snoad entered a prep school, followed by boarding school in Dorset, three hours west of London, where he joined other children of privilege. It’s where, at age 16, he had his first contact with a black person, a Ugandan classmate of royalty.

After graduation, Snoad opted against college, spending seven years as a newspaper reporter.

He took a stab at writing a novel, a dream cut short by his parents’ deaths and the need to support himself.

Then, he went to work in the press office for a UK-based nonprofit doing rural development work. That led to a permanent gig in Washington, D.C., a town more than 70 percent African-American between 1970 and 1980. It also led to a green card.

But a restless Snoad wanted a change in scenery and a return to the stage. He eventually found it in Brattleboro, Vt., home to a thriving theater community.

Then a weekend trip to Boston changed everything.

At a party in Somerville, he met a sociologist and dancer named Mindy Fried.

They clicked, settled in Jamaica Plain and raised a daughter, Sasha.
He did voice acting and stage work around Boston. Then came a crisis of confidence: he found it increasingly hard to memorize lines, and even blanked in performance.

“Acting became more stress than joy. It just wasn’t much fun anymore. Then it dawned on me: maybe acting wasn't the only thing I could do in the theater. I could write plays. Or at least I could try."

Over the last 12 years, Snoad has written seven full-length plays, four of which are being produced at Hibernian Hall.

“I said to Dillon Bustin, the artistic director, ‘Are you sure you want an older white straight man as your visiting playwright?’ And he said, ‘Hibernian Hall is a multicultural arts space. You write a lot about race relations and identity issues and your plays are good.’”

Last fall, Hibernian Hall produced Snoad’s “Raising David Walker,” in which a young woman's quest to discover if a local black abolitionist was assassinated, triggers a racist backlash.

This fall, the theater will stage Snoad’s “Identity Crisis,” a slapstick comedy that revolves around a white groom's fear of turning black on the eve of his wedding.

And in January, the playhouse will help mark the 50 anniversary of the Vietnam War by premiering “The Draft,” a multi-media documentary by Snoad featuring the real-life stories of nine men and two women and their experience with the military draft.

“Race and class played a major role in who was put on the front lines,” said Snoad.

Tickets for “Guided Tour” can be purchased at www.hibernianhall.org or at the door. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for seniors and students. For more information, call 617-541-3900.

Clennon L. King can be reached at clennon@augustinemonica.com.

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Former English child actor Peter Snoad holds a kitten in the 1956 British motion picture, "A Place Like Alice."

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