A portrait of an elder Cassius Marcellus Clay. (Photo courtesy of Sid Webb via photobucket, Graphic Designer.)
Special to KyForward
Emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of Kentucky’s most famous, distinguished and colorful personalities, was indeed An Audacious American. His life is being celebrated in a PBS documentary by that name – made in Kentucky by a talented group of Kentucky artisans.
The 60-minute film will premiere at the Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. The event itself will be as colorful as the historic character himself – go dressed in period costume and receive a free copy of the film’s DVD.
Produced by Lexington’s Michael Breeding of Michael Breeding MEDIA and narrated by Peter Thomas, the high definition film was shot on location in Madison County at Clay’s stately Italianate-styled mansion, White Hall, itself a state shrine.
Fowler Black of Paducah and Gathan Borden of Louisville serve as narrators in An Audacious American. (Photo courtesy of Sid Webb via photobucket, Graphic Designer.)
The documentary was written by Kentuckian and Clay biographer, Betty Boles Ellison; 13 cast members are Kentuckians. The only non-Kentuckian involved in the project is Peter Thomas, American’s most famous narrator. He is assisted in the narration by Fowler Black of Paducah and Gathan Borden of Louisville.
This documentary portrays an 85-year-old Clay writing his autobiography—recollecting vividly the triumphs and tragedies of his life, sparing neither himself, family, friends nor enemies. Clay takes the viewer with him as he purposely strides through the 19th-century landscape of bitter politics and duels, palatial homes and beautiful women, slavery and the Civil War and a diplomatic mission precipitating the purchase of Alaska, leaving the lasting imprint of his fiery emancipationist personality in his wake.
Breeding, producer of The Kentucky Humanities Council’s performance of Our Lincoln filmed at The Kennedy Center in honor of the 16th president’s 200th birthday and The Keeneland Legacy, a commemoration of the racetrack’s 75th anniversary, spent two years assembling the cast, producing, directing and editing An Audacious American.
“It’s the most arduous project I’ve ever undertaken but, yet, one of the most satisfying,” Breeding said. “Clay was such a multifaceted and brilliant person that I was surprised he’d been overlooked as a documentary subject for decades. I was fortunate to put together, on a shoestring budget, a crew and cast who did a splendid job telling his story.”
Ellison, a journalist turned historian, wrote the script for An Audacious American based on her biography of Clay, A Man Seen But Once.
“Dating back to the 1969-1971 restoration of his home, White Hall, in Madison County,” she said, “I’ve been captivated not only by the man himself but by all his accomplishments—general, diplomat, educator, farmer, journalist and most of all, an emancipationist. In order to achieve all of that, he sacrificed his family life but not what he called his ‘sacred honor.’”
Tickets for the premier of An Audacious American are free and can be obtained at www.michaelbreedingmedia.com.
At the door, the price will be $10.
“Attendees are encouraged to dress in period attire,” Breeding said. “Those who do will receive a complimentary DVD of the documentary.”
Mel Hankla, from Jamestown, plays Clay. Hankla, like most of the cast members, are performers with the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua Programs. Hankla is also an educator, an expert in early Kentucky tools, weapons and blacksmithing and author of numerous articles in journals and magazines.
Kelly Brengelman, from Central Kentucky, plays Clay’s wife, Mary Jane Warfield Clay. She says it’s possible she’s related to Mrs. Clay through the Burgess family.
A moving performance is provided by Louisville’s Erma J. Bush in the role of Mary, a slave who taught Clay about gardening and who, to protect herself, killed one of the family’s plantation overseers with a butcher knife.
Georgetown College student Ethan Smith of Cynthiana plays a young Cassius Clay. His parents Betsy and Ed Smith have the roles of Sally Lewis Clay, Cassius’ mother, and John G. Fee, who with Clay’s assistance laid the foundation for Berea College. Dr. Smith teaches in the Department of Theatre at Georgetown.
Dr. George McGee, chairman of the Department of Theatre Performance Studies at Georgetown, portrays Clay’s cousin, Henry Clay.
Sam Stephens, a retired executive from The Clark Group and a Lexingtonian, makes a cameo appearance as Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Nicky Hughes, curator of Historic Sites for the City of Frankfort, is cast as Dr. John P. DeClarey, from Louisville, a former suitor of Mary Jane Warfield’s. Clay challenged him to a duel that was never fought. He claimed his mother-in-law, Maria Barr Warfield, instigated the situation.
An adjunct Eastern Kentucky University faculty member, Charles Mullins, from Hazard, plays James G. Birney, who planned an emancipation newspaper in Danville before Clay established his True American in Lexington.
Lexington’s Caroline Haddock gives an angry voice to the deep resentment many in Central Kentucky felt about Clay’s newspaper. She is the co-founder of the Lexington Vintage Dance Society and an expert in historical costumes.
Lexington’s Sid Webb retired KET director of productions, created the extraordinary Monet- styled paintings of Clay and the actors for the documentary.
Funding for the documentary was provided by The KET Fund for Independent Production, The Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, Creative Kitchen and Bath, Berea College, Runnymede Farm, The Springfield Kentucky Lincoln Legacy Museum, The Stephen Foster Story, The Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc. and Transylvania University.
The documentary will air throughout October – Clay’s birthday is Oct. 19 – on KET.