In August 2017, 63-year-old Mélisande (Méli) Short-Colomb packed her bags and moved to Washington, DC, to begin her freshman year at Georgetown University. It was the start of a new life for the New Orleans native — a mother, grandmother, chef, and culinary instructor who never dreamed she’d be back in school again, much less at Georgetown.
Méli’s ancestors, the Mahoney and Queen families, had been among the 272 enslaved people sold from plantations owned by the Maryland Province of Jesuits in 1838 to support the struggling university. Her opportunity to attend Georgetown was one of many ways the university has forged connections with descendants of the Jesuits’ shocking act of human trafficking.
Six years after her matriculation, Méli and Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics have created a splendid one-woman show entitled Here I Am to explore how she came to terms with her ancestors’ treatment and redefined her own place in the world. A highly personal meditation on tragedy and restorative justice, the play is also a tale of collaboration with the university whose survival depended on cashing in her forebears. Together with Georgetown faculty and outside technical staff, she has peeled back the layers of history that obscured but never totally masked the university’s past.
The show is uniquely imagined. Méli stands on the stage of stately Gaston Hall facing a video camera. Her performance is captured in real time and projected on a large screen with changing graphics and documentary footage in the background.
One could hardly find a more natural or compelling storyteller than Méli Short-Colomb. Her voice is a truly splendid instrument. Burnished and resonant as she shares the facts of her family’s mistreatment, it becomes light and fresh as spring when she describes her grandmother, a sage who had enormous influence in Méli’s life.
Her face (oh that face!) radiates joy as she talks about the eleven generations that preceded her in America. Her jaw sets as shares her challenges in navigating the university. She bares her teeth, ever so slightly, as she recalls chatting with an un-woke white woman at an event honoring the newly marked burial sites of the Jesuits’ enslaved population. “Well, you’re here now,” said the woman brightly. “You’re not still angry, are you?” Here I am, indeed, Méli assures us. And yes, she is still angry. Anger is appropriate and necessary to fuel change. That’s different from hate, she says, which is a dead end.
When the university’s unsavory tale was splashed across the national news in 2016, an alum established the Georgetown Memory Project, a nonprofit that employed genealogists to find descendants of the enslaved persons who were shipped off from Washington docks and sold to Southern plantation owners. Originally, it was assumed that most had died of disease and mistreatment. Now over 11,000 descendants have been found. Méli recalls being dumbfounded when she received a Facebook message from one of those researchers. Fragments of stories she’d heard from her beloved grandmother started falling into place.
Although the show affords Méli a well-deserved star turn, it is also the story of Georgetown itself, and how a place of privilege has nurtured its conscience by collaborating with descendants. Fellow students in her Performance, Memory, and Witness class at Georgetown, taught by Derek Goldman, provided early feedback for Méli’s tales. Goldman, artistic and executive director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, directed the show and oversaw script development. OBIE award-winning Nikkole Salter assisted with the script, dramaturgy, and direction. Jared Mezzocchi’s magnificent multimedia design added rich texture and essential information to the production.
Like so many shows developed during the pandemic, Here I Am was first performed online in 2021. Méli’s performances will doubtless be in great demand in venues nationwide. However, this live Georgetown premiere is an event of singular importance. It has extraordinary resonance not only for the artist but also for a university still coming to terms with its haunting past.
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Here I Am will be performed again on April 12, 2023, at 7 p.m. (accompanied by a screening of the film I Am the Bridge) at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, 37th and O Streets in Washington DC. It will be followed by a discussion with members of the creative teams from the play and film and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies. Tickets are free or pay what you can and are available online and will be available at the door.
A powerful theater of witness marks Emancipation Day in ‘Here I Am’
(review by Susan Galbraith, April 16, 2021)
Descendant of enslaved people sold by Georgetown to perform her ‘Here I Am’ (news story, April 7, 2021)