“The Journey of Robert Smalls” is the Gaillard Center’s first original production
In March, actor Keith Alston took the stage in Pure Theatre’s world premiere of Septima. This month, he assumes the role of the titular character in the Gaillard Center’s original production, Finding Freedom, The Journey of Robert Smalls.
Actor Keith Howard Alston has never backed down from playing a high profile character. After all, the Mount Pleasant native’s first part was Jesus in his high school production of Godspell. This month, he’ll portray the elder Robert Smalls in the premiere of the Gaillard Center’s first original production, Finding Freedom, The Journey of Robert Smalls, which follows the courageous Civil War hero from an enslaved childhood to gaining his freedom, commandeering a Confederate ship, and being elected to the US House of Representatives.
Alston, who attended Moultrie Middle School before leaving the Lowcountry in the early 1980s and earning an education degree from Colgate University, discovered his love of theater as a teenager in New York.
Since returning to Mount Pleasant in 1990, Alston has continued to pursue acting between his demanding role as a caretaker for family members and working nights at Planet Fitness. He’s appeared in countless local productions including Driving Miss Daisy, A Raisin in the Sun, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Pure Theatre’s Septima, based on the life of educator and activist Septima Clark. Here, Alston shares the significance of his latest role.
(Left) Alston was a member of the ensemble in Septima, in which the civil rights activist remembered the people who influenced her throughout her life; (Right) Keith Alston.
Discovering His Passion: When I was in high school [in Pawling, New York], I was an athlete. I had no interest in theater. The drama department was doing a production of Godspell, and there was this kid from New York City who was bragging that he’d have to play Jesus because no one else could. That bothered me, so I auditioned and got the part. I was hooked. I continued acting through high school and college, then came back to Mount Pleasant to take care of my grandmother. I saw auditions for August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at the Summerville Playhouse, so on a lark, I drove up and auditioned and got the part of Boy Willie.
Preserving History: There are so many Black people from this state that nobody’s heard of. I grew up in South Carolina public schools, but I hadn’t heard about people like Esau Jenkins, Robert Smalls, Matilda Evans, and Septima Clark until I was in college. We studied American history and South Carolina history, but there was nothing about these people. Most of the crew had the same experience. This isn’t just Black history or Southern history; this is American history.
A Catalyst for Change: Theater can educate and entertain at the same time. Last year, I appeared in a short film about Robert Smalls that was shown throughout middle schools in South Carolina. One day, I’m in Publix and this little white boy is following me. Finally, his mother asks him what’s going on, and he was so excited. He says, “That’s Robert Smalls!” It was wonderful. That’s why these stories should be taught, not just to African American kids, but all kids.
On Playing Robert Smalls: I love this play because some people know about Robert stealing the Planter, but the story of his relationships—with his family, his wife, his community—is so important. He didn’t just wake up one day and decide to steal a ship. He had strong connections with people around him, and they had faith in him. He had a full life before and after that episode, including buying the plantation where he and his mother were formerly enslaved.
Coming Up Next: I’m going to take a theater trip to New York this month, but right now I’m just enjoying this. I’m so honored to be part of this play. The Gaillard and the arts department are putting so much behind this, they’ve made us feel welcome in this space, and they’re committed to telling this story. It’s on a grand scale, and it should be! I will continue acting. It’s my passion; it’s what brings me joy. I never see it as a job or a chore; I leave rehearsals feeling charged and ready to take on anything.
In Character: WATCH Alston in a clip from Pure Theatre’s production of Septima.