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Descendant of judge who wrote infamous Dred Scott decision pens a play about where we are now

NEW YORK (AP) — Writer and actor Kate Taney Billingsley has been thinking a lot about America's racial history and her family's part in it. One of her ancestors had an outsized role.

Billingsley's great-great-great-great uncle was Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who made arguably the worst decision in U.S. Supreme Court history in 1857.

It was Taney who ruled that African Americans could not be citizens as part of the infamous Dred Scott decision, named after an enslaved man who unsuccessfully sought his freedom. The ruling helped set the nation on a path toward war.

“I inherited this generational trauma in the family,” Billingsley says. The decision was overturned by the 14th amendment to the Constitution after the Civil War, granting citizenship to all those born in the United States, regardless of race.

Right about the time of Black Lives Matter protests, Billingsley decided to confront that trauma the only way she knew how — turning it into theater.

“I sat down to write this dramatic question that had been in my family for many, many years, which was, ‘Should we apologize to the Scott family for what our ancestor did?’”

What emerged is the thrilling play “American Rot,” about the modern-day fictional meeting of descendants on both sides of the Dred Scott decision in a diner off the New Jersey Turnpike. It makes its world premiere this month off-off-Broadway at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

It is raw, riotous and bursting, a kaleidoscopic work, with dueling white and Black choruses and surreal touches. The diner waitress is a white supremacist and Dred Scott himself appears at one point. “This play should move like a freight train,” the playwright advises in her preface.

“I did not set out to solve anything when I wrote this play,” says Billingsley. “My goal was not to say, ‘OK, let’s solve America’s racist history and present moment.’ It was more to let us just take a really honest look at it.”

The play begins with the tentative meeting of Jim Taney and Walter Scott, both 70, one the descendant of Roger Brooke Taney and the other of Dred Scott. As the two men talk, the conversation grows more tense as each articulates their grievances and the legacy of hatred.

“We’ve got to believe in the arc of the moral universe, right?” asks Jim, apologizing for his family. "You know they killed King, right? Walter shoots back.

There are references to Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni, climate change, the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police and the college admission scandal, with the white chorus singing: “White! White! And full of spite!/Breaking every rule to get our kids in good schools!”

“American Rot” is an expansion of Billingsley's one-act “A Man of His Time,” and has gone through various iterations, all directed by “Roseanne” and Broadway star Estelle Parsons. The latest version has 14 characters, music and choreography. Billingsley was urged to expand her initial short work by John Douglas Thompson, who appeared in a podcast version by The Actors Studio.

The expanded version is the result of years traveling around the country and seeking out an array of voices, including descendants of the enslaved people held by her family and others. “I felt I needed to kind of shut up and listen,” she says.

Billingsley populated her play with wives and children of both men, the original rivals Roger Brooke Taney and Dred Scott, and the character Chief Standing Bear. She also includes an aria by a struggling relative of Taney with economic grievances who thinks Jim's idea to apologize is ridiculous. Jim is partly based on the playwright's father.

Parsons helped suggest the concept of dueling choirs and realized that she didn't want to give it up to another director who would cut parts she adored. “I thought this is a musical without the music,” she says.

Billingsley hopes the play can have a life everywhere, and despite a professional soundscape and lighting this time, it can be produced in schools and small theaters, too. “I would love this play to be done with it just in an empty black box with not a lot of money,” she says.

It’s structured without an intermission purposely: Billingsley doesn’t want to give the audience the chance to leave early. “They’re really being confronted with stuff that maybe they don’t want to look at,” she says.

While the playwright insists that she's not out to solve America's racial divide, there are some steps suggested — letting go of simmering hate, beginning the process of forgiveness and really doing the work to amputate white supremacy.

“A lot of feelings are going to come up,” says Billingsley. “It’s been very hard to confront this stuff that’s in my genetic makeup and in my unconscious that presents itself every single day.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits