‘Hotel Berry’ brings largely untold story of Athens’ Black history to Forum Theater stage starting Nov. 17

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – A largely untold story of Athens’ rich Black history premieres on Ohio University’s Forum Theater stage next week.

“Hotel Berry”  is a slice of painstakingly researched historical fiction penned by nationally acclaimed playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton. The work is set in Athens’ own Berry Hotel, which stood at 18 North Court Street for over 80 years.

The show is a production of Ohio University College of Fine Arts professional theater company Tantrum Theater, who commissioned Lawton to write a play about Athens’ Black history several years ago.
“Hotel Berry” is the product of a years-long collaboration between Lawton, Tantrum, the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, and numerous regional historians and community members. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was awarded to Tantrum last year to help fund the production.

The poster for Tantrum Theater's "Hotel Berry."

Lawton said that as she began diving into Athens’ Black history as research for the work, she was “heartbroken” she had never heard of the Berry Hotel.

“In the narrative of Black history, we get stories of slavery. We get stories of the Black soldiers who served in World War I and II. We get stories of the civil rights movement; and we get contemporary stories,” she said. “But there’s this period in Black history that we just don’t learn about a lot: the Reconstruction era upwards to the 1920s. I’m always attracted to those stories in particular because there’s a narrative of Black wealth and Black success and Black enterprise that has gone untold.”

At the heart of the Berry Hotel’s story  is married couple Edward and Martha “Mattie” Berry, the two Black entrepreneurs who owned and operated the hotel from 1892 to 1923. Over the course of those 30 years, the couple grew what started as a modest ice cream parlor into one of the country’s preeminent hotels. Guests included multiple U.S. Presidents and big names such as poet Robert Frost and entertainer Bob Hope.

“… there’s this period in Black history that we just don’t learn about a lot: the Reconstruction era upwards to the 1920s. I’m always attracted to those stories in particular because there’s a narrative of Black wealth and Black success and Black enterprise that has gone untold.” – “Hotel Berry” playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton

It’s hard to overstate the impact the Berrys made on the American hospitality industry – after all, they were the very first American hoteliers to provide Bibles in each of their guest rooms. Even so, the enduring impact of the Berrys and their hotel is rarely discussed outside of Athens.

Lawton set the play over just a few very eventful days at the Berry Hotel in May 1912. The hotel receives a telegram from former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt announcing his desire to stay at the Berry during his whistle stop tour for re-election. The request comes only six years after the Brownsville Affair, when the 167 Black men of the 25th United States Infantry Regiment were wrongly accused by the townspeople of Brownsville, TX of murdering a white bartender and shooting a white police officer. Roosevelt would go on to dishonorably discharge the entire regiment, stripping them of their pensions and making it impossible for them to ever serve in civil service jobs again.

Berry Hotel postcard from the late 1890s
Berry Hotel postcard, from the late 1890s. [Ohio University Archives]
“This happened during the midterm elections, and being a very strategic man, Teddy Roosevelt knew that he and the Republican Party needed as many Black votes as possible. So he waited to announce that he was going to dismiss the men until after the election — which was just devastating for the Black community, who felt heartbroken and betrayed,” Lawton said. “The fact that this was six years later, the Black community is still wrestling with it and thinking about it in terms of who in public office might actually represent the needs of the Black community. In terms of advancing Black suffrage and civil rights – and in terms of disrupting the lynchings that are occurring and ending the Jim Crow laws. So there’s not a lot of faith in Teddy Roosevelt from the Black community – and yet he wants to come and stay at this  hotel which is run by this Black couple.”

Although the events of “Hotel Berry” took place over a century ago, Lawton said audiences will find the central themes of the work resonate today.

“The right to vote, and the importance of a vote, are very much themes in the play,” she said. “ I want make sure that we understand each citizen has a civic duty to be informed and active in their local politics.”

Lawton said the work also deals with questions regarding the nature of a person’s duty to themselves versus their duty to community.

“Not just whether someone is working towards something greater than themselves – but questioning how one can contribute to the community they live in,” Lawton said. “How they can create opportunities within that community that make it possible for the people who come after them not to have to fight as hard to be treated with respect and dignity? These are things folks are discussing today just as much as they were in 1912.”

Berry Hall banquet group photo, in black and white.
A picture of a group dining in the Berry Hotel banquet room, circa 1908. [Ohio University Archives]
Lawton worked with the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society throughout the development of “Hotel Berry.” The group is dedicated to the conservation and rehabilitation of Athens’ Mount Zion Baptist Church, which served as an important landmark and meeting place for the Black community in the Ohio River Valley for many decades. As it turns out, the lives of Edward and Mattie Berry are deeply intertwined with the history of the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

“The Berrys owned quite a bit of land at the north end of Court Street,” said Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society board member Dr. Trevellya Ford-Ahmed. “At that time the Mount Zion congregation had a wooden building on Lancaster Street. But as their congregation began to grow, they wanted to expand that space.  That was when the Berrys offered land to the congregation to actually build a larger church. And that was kind of the beginning of building that beautiful edifice that you see there now.”

The Preservation Society was so much a part of the development of the play that Lawton decided to name a central character after Ford-Ahmed, and another character after Preservation Society Board President Ada Woodson Adams.

“That’s what blew my mind – when I saw that there was a character named ‘Trevy’ in the play – I thought – ‘no one but the people in my family know me as Trevy! Everyone else knows me as Tee!’” Ford-Ahmed said. “So that’s when I had to say kudos to the playwright. In her research, she really didn’t even need us, because she went way beyond the pale! But I can’t wait to see her and ask her how she knew that was a nickname for me. I’m delighted to have my name associated with the play. It’s wonderful. And I think so is Miss Ada — when we both heard, we said we both broke open a bottle of wine and said kudos to Professor Lawton!”

“Hotel Berry” is  directed by JaMeeka Hollway, who said the Preservation Society’s involvement in the work has been indispensable.

“They have been a part of the very initial work that is this play,” Holloway said. “What they understand about the city of Athens and the spirit of the Berry is invaluable to what we will artistically do with this show. I’m excited to continue to be in conversation with them throughout some of the talk backs that we’ll be having after the shows.”

Holloway said she hopes “Hotel Berry” will further illuminate and amplify the lives and legacy of Edward and Mattie Berry.

“One of the things that I’m reminded of is that the trend of Black entrepreneurship that we’ve seen expand over the last few years isn’t anything new,” she said. “We are expanding on a legacy that was built years ago. I feel incredibly honored as a Black person — as a Black woman — to continue to carry the baton of Mattie and Edward Berry.”

“Hotel Berry” runs November 17, 18, 19, 29, 30, and December 1, 2, 3 in Ohio University’s Forum Theater (35 South College Street). Masks are required in the theater. The November 17 show is a preview show, and the opening night of the production is November 18. There will be American Sign Language interpreters translating the show on Dec. 1. Shows will also be available for live streaming. There will be a talk backs after the Nov. 19 and Dec. 1 shows. Find more information and buy tickets at this link.