After more than six years of work, Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Moline-based Fourth Wall Films will premiere their first docudrama, “Sons & Daughters of Thunder,” on the Putnam Museum’s Giant Screen, 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16.
The 85-minute film, which tells the true story of the first public discussions of slavery's abolition in 1834 at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, is close to selling out, and if it does, a second screening will be 3 p.m. March 17. The event includes a lobby display of costumes and props, and a talkback with the filmmakers and cast following the movie.
“Sons & Daughters of Thunder” (the title comes from a biblical phrase) is based on the 1970s play by Earlene Hawley and Curtis Heeter, which premiered in Oregon. It chronicles the beginning of the end of slavery in America, and a young Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the popular anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom's Cabin” in 1852.
The film stars real-life married couple Jessica Taylor as Harriet, then 23, and Tom Taylor as abolitionist Theodore Weld, with an original score by Bill Campbell of St. Ambrose, the composer behind the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Lifeboat.”
The Taylors are veterans of QC Theatre Workshop.
“I felt such a sense of responsibility to portray her,” Jessica Taylor said Thursday, noting they filmed in 2014 at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati, the only remaining building from the seminary grounds, where Harriet's father, Lyman Beecher, was president.
“There was such weight to what we were doing,” she said. “To be in the place where it actually happened — I was in awe of it. She's funny; she wrote satire. She was breaking some rules as a woman at that time.”
Tom Taylor said it was an honor to play a figure that “had that kind of influence, shapes the world around them, to spend time digging into his work, dangers that he faced. He was quite an exciting character.
"It's easy for him to get overlooked because it was the beginning of and not the end of it” he said.
“Weld was an all-or-nothing abolitionist,” director Kelly Rundle, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Tammy, said Thursday, noting Weld was 31 at the time of the debates.
“The word was charismatic,” he said. “He would go into a small Southern community and convert them to abolition. In the South, you must be pretty compelling.”
In 1834, 18 days of student-sponsored debates about abolishing slavery at Lane -- which Weld co-founded and where he studied – were scandalous, Kelly said. “The shocking oratory sparked intense controversy and awakened a young Harriet Beecher Stowe to the horrors of slavery.” Lyman Beecher was a supporter of slavery and a “colonizationist,” which called for every black to be returned to Africa, Kelly said.
Harriet met Lane professor Calvin Stowe, a critic of slavery, at the literary Semi-Colon Club, and they married in January 1836.
She witnessed a Kentucky slave auction, and interacted with people involved in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati. “She saw the effects, unlike sitting on the East Coast, she saw the effects of slavery on real people,” Kelly said. Beecher Stowe was born and died in Connecticut, and wrote “Uncle Tom's Cabin” in Maine. “That I think is what made the difference.”
When school trustees slapped a gag order on the "Lane rebels," most of the students left the school in collective protest. The Lane board prohibited students from discussing slavery, and students left for Oberlin College, near Cleveland, which then was one year old, admitted African-Americans and allowed free discussion of the issue.
Inspired by the debates and her observations of slavery across the Ohio River, Harriet’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was described by President Abraham Lincoln as the book that started the Civil War in 1861.
“It's really ironic that it's a work of fiction that really turns the tide of public opinion,” Kelly said. “The abolitionists had worked for years without seeing any significant progress.”
“We're still wrestling with the consequences of slavery in so many ways,” he said. “That's why the story doesn't feel like totally history. You can still identify with the themes, the emotions, with the idea of struggling with a difficult, divisive issue. “I can't imagine a more divisive issue. The way you begin to resolve something like that is talking about it, having a civil discussion.”
The book was influential because it's a form of art, where there's a safe distance from it, Tom Taylor said. “You can be influenced by it, but it's not the gruesome truthful accounts people want to turn away from.”
There aren't transcripts of the Lane debates, but there is a real speech in the film, from Lane's only black student, James Bradley, a former slave. There are also excerpts from abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass's July 4 speech in 1852.
Principal photography for “Thunder” took place at several historic sites in the Quad-Cities and surrounding areas, including Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, Augustana College’s House on the Hill, Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover, and Dillon Home Museum in Sterling, Ill.
Kimberly Kurtenbach is executive producer and also stars as Harriet's sister, Catharine; she served as casting director on the project. Quad-Citians in the cast include Janos Horvath, Tom Walljasper, Mike Kennedy, Don Denton, Mike Schulz, Tristan Tapscott, Justin Marxen, Jaylen Marx, Pat Flaherty, and Joe Maubach.
“Sons & Daughters of Thunder” is slated for national release in May. For more information, visit LaneRebelsMovie.com.