This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This is a busy time of year for Ciara Williford, who works in the Philadelphia School District’s Student Placement Office, where her main job is helping parents enroll their children in school.
But on the weekends for most of September, she is taking on another persona – that of Oney Judge, who was Martha Washington’s enslaved maid when husband George Washington served as the country’s first president and lived at what is now the corner of Sixth and Market Streets.
Williford portrays Judge in A House With No Walls, a play by Thomas Gibbons that is being staged by Old Academy Players in East Falls. It is only the second Philadelphia production of the work, which shifts in time between 1797 and the early 21st century. The show is a fictionalized version of the controversy that ensued when city civil rights leaders demanded that the reconstructed President’s House – right next to the entrance to the Liberty Bell museum – tell the stories of the enslaved people who lived there and not whitewash that piece of our history.
At 22, Williford is about the same age as Oney Judge when she lived in Philadelphia, and it is her first acting role, although she is an accomplished spoken-word artist who performs throughout the area.
A graduate of Philadelphia High School for Girls, she also attended city public schools before that – Julia DeBurgos Elementary, Hopkinson Elementary, and Feltonville, as well as spending one year in a charter. She went on to graduate from the main campus of Penn State.
Williford said that before auditioning for this role, she had never heard of Judge. Historians think she escaped from the Washingtons with help from local abolitionists. She moved to New Hampshire, where she raised a family. The Washingtons sent slave catchers to recapture her, but she eluded them.
Judge lived well into her 70s, and her story is becoming more known through the commemoration at the President’s House and a recent biography by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
Williford, who has Puerto Rican and African American heritage, said she can relate to Judge, whose mother was a slave and whose father was a white indentured servant.
“I didn’t know anything about Oney prior to this play, but now I’m in love with her, her strength,” she said. “Oney had a lot of responsibility placed on her.”
Williford said that the young woman, as portrayed in the play, always looked for the best in people. She even defended Washington to the abolitionists who helped her escape, saying he was a basically good man who wanted to do what was right but couldn’t “because all the important men around him wouldn’t like it.” She is crestfallen when she discovers that he sent her and the other slaves out of state periodically not so they could reunite with family at Mount Vernon, as she assumed, but so that he could get around Pennsylvania law, which at the time made slaves brought into the state automatically free after six months.
Williford also understands Oney’s search for identity, because she has moved among different neighborhoods and the two sides of her family. Her mother, Williford said, lived “in what people like to call the ‘hood,” while her father was a police officer who lived in a much more upscale neighborhood. That explains why she attended so many different schools when younger.
“Oney’s father being white … I think about it all the time. When I’m with my mom, I’m too dark to be Puerto Rican, and when with my father, I’m too light to be black. I relate to Oney so much.”
When this opportunity came up, she was looking to broaden her horizons. “I was talking about theater, how I wanted to make this the most uncomfortable year of my life, expand my brand and craft, and how theater was another way to possibly be able to do it.”
As a performer, she said, “I’d like to do activist work in relation to my peers, and when I heard about this play, I felt the concept of it was perfect. This is a great topic to be presenting to such a diverse audience.”
Especially now, she said. “With everything going on with Trump, the statues being removed due to their symbolism, me being a biracial woman myself having to define who I am and what I stand for. I’m continually told I have to be strong. It was the perfect play.”
She was always a good student in English, she said, and teachers encouraged her to write. She remembers in 8th grade watching Def Poetry Jam on TV and feeling that this kind of communication about social issues “was my purpose.”
At Penn State in Happy Valley, she founded an organization called Words, which teamed up with other campus organizations to bring important issues to the public eye. For instance, if an organization on campus was presenting about sexual abuse awareness, “my group would go to their event and perform pieces based on that concept.”
Oney Judge is motivated to escape largely due to her determination to learn to read, lessons that were denied to slaves. She is frantic to hide a piece of paper she retrieved from a print shop waste bin from Martha Washington, fearful of punishment for her daring attempt to decipher it.
“Somethin’s hidin’ inside these letters,” she tells her brother Austin, who likes to carve wood. He had just told her that he can’t explain it, but “a shape hidin’” in the wood reveals itself to him as he carves. “It’s the same thing with this,” she says, holding up the piece of paper with the letters on it. “Only it ain’t a shape, it’s a whole other world. White folks know how to see it, and it gives ‘em power.”
“How you figure that?” Austin asks.
“’Cause they don’t let us see it, do they? But I will. You too.”
The modern-day characters in the play argue about institutional racism vs. cultural values and personal motivation as they debate what has caused the educational inequality that persists today.
Of her first acting role, Williford says: “I was very happy doing it, although I didn’t realize how time-consuming it would be and how much expression and character you had to put into the craft. I’m definitely thinking of doing it again.”
A reviewer who came to a preview performance said: “Williford’s Oney is gracious and gentle even as she yearns for the freedom that she feels is almost within her grasp. Symbolically, she is reluctant to part with a scrap of text, knowing that the ability to read is its own kind of freedom.”
“A House With No Walls” runs through Sept. 24 at Old Academy Players in East Falls. Tickets are $20.
Disclosure: Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa is a longtime member of Old Academy Players and helped produce "A House With No Walls."