July 6th through September 29th, 2018
Old State House, Downtown Boston, MA
Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight
(Boston, Massachusetts) On a rainy Saturday, Kathy Mulvaney explained to the crowd of museum visitors that she needed a minute to bring in more chairs, as the hall was fuller than anticipated. Mulvaney is the Director of Education at the Old State House. She told us that the historical play Cato & Dolly would be about twenty minutes, and she noted that we could not re-enter if we decided to leave for the bathroom. Finally, Mulvaney encouraged us to sit back and enjoy. Then the hall went silent.
The clicking sound of Stephen Sampson’s shoes echoed, as this actor slowly strolled from behind a door to stand tall in front of the attentive audience. In character as slave Cato Hancock, he remarked how “The Hancocks may have never touched this door. I opened and closed it.” The door mounted on the platform is a historic object. It is the actual door from the Hancock House, which was the residence of Governor John Hancock, and it is a centerpiece of the current exhibit at the Old State House, “Through the Keyhole.” For twenty minutes, Cato and Dolly Hancock recreated the time when the Marquis de Lafayette was welcomed by Dolly; when Samuel Adams rushed in to demand that John Hancock improve the Constitution; and other moments when other important men walked through the historic doorway.
This survey of historical figures includes Dolly and John Hancock’s son, John George Washington “Johnny” Hancock. Actress Marge Dunn as Dolly emotionally recounted how her son departed through the door healthy and excited to skate on a frozen pond in Milton, mere hours before falling on the ice and taking a fatal blow to his head. He died on 27 January 1787, only eight years old. Dolly mournfully remembered “I knew I would be opening this door again, this time for little Johnny to leave us forever.”
After the death John Hancock in October 1793, Captain James Scott steps through the doorway with intentions to marry the widow Dolly, and Captain Scott wooed her until the two wed on 27 July 1796 at Brattle Square Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Standing alone in front of the entrance, the freed slave Cato reminisced how the “Mrs headed out this door as Mrs Hancock and came back as Mrs Scott.”
The theatre experience chronicled the lives of Cato and Dolly into old age. Dolly needed a cane to walk and decided to downsize “to a smaller place,” while Cato mentioned grandchildren. When the play ended, the actors Dunn and Sampson stuck around in costume, remaining available for photos with audience members. I took the opportunity to thank Marge Dunn for another wonderful performance, as this was the third or fourth play I’ve seen her in this year, and each time Dunn’s emotional range is both evident and moving. She is an actress who revives her characters’ stories from a place of respect.
Although a native Bostonian, I’d never visited the Old State House. I was pleasantly taken aback by the obvious care of the museum’s staff and custodians. Although a small space, the museum’s layout is maximized to offer an inexhaustible amount of interesting local history, and by offering this site-specific theatre experience, the museum is providing its visitors with a gateway into Boston’s history.
Cato & Dolly runs till 29 September on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 11AM, 12:30PM, and 2PM. The exhibit and play beg the question “How do objects we preserve shape the stories we remember?” You can find that answer and more at the Old State House, where veterans are admitted for free.
Make Cato & Dolly part of your summer. I am certain you’ll appreciate this brand new American play!