Susheel Bibbs Brings Mary Pleasant to Life

“It was about freedom.”

So, actress Susheel Bibbs began her chautauqua on the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant, the woman commonly known as the Mother of the California Civil Rights Movement. The performance took place at the Saville Theatre Feb. 18.

A chatauqua is a three-part interactive performance in which the actress begins with a biographical storytelling in character, followed by taking questions in character about the life of the person portrayed and finished with the actress appearing as herself to take more questions from the audience.

According to information available at the performance, Bibbs is an accomplished actress, acclaimed classical singer, and EMMY-award winning executive producer sponsored by the Film Arts Foundation, San Francisco.

Bibbs approached the stage from the right, taking the stairs slowly, as the audience watched in silence.

Bibbs was costumed in a black and white vertically-striped over garment that spread v-shaped from the waist revealing the black underskirt beneath. She took her place within the simple set of a table and chairs carefully removing her ribboned hat and tartan shawl.

“She did a great job of putting you there in the time period with her use of the vernacular, her acting, everything,” said City sociology major Darius Harris.

Bibbs, fully cloaked in the persona of Pleasant, said that she lived from 1817 to 1904. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Virginia governor’s son, John H. Pleasants, and an enslaved Haitian voodoo priestess.

Bibbs explained that passing for white during her early adult years aided her safe travel as those whose profession was returning escaped slaves to captivity might not recognize her status as a free woman since she didn’t have the required papers.

Bibbs told of her childhood as an indentured servant in Nantucket, of her marriages, and of her involvement with the abolitionist movement.

“I’ve come a long way” said Bibbs as Pleasant many times during the performance.

Bibbs continued in character explaining that after the Emancipation Proclamation, she felt more at ease revealing herself as a black woman.

By that time Pleasant had traveled from the West to settle in San Francisco, California, where she mounted successful legal actions that resulted in the desegregation of public transport in San Francisco.

Bibbs took up newspaper props pointing to the slanderous statements that dogged her in the latter part of her life after the death of her business partner Thomas Bell, the Scottsman with whom she had amassed a 30 million dollar fortune.

“Them papers” nicknamed her “Mammy,” a name she despised. Pleasant was accused of many things including being a madam, a baby stealer, and a murderer.

“When she talked about taking the shackles off her mind, that was inspiring,” said Najha Fielder, psychology major, referring to a statement made by Bibbs during the monologue portion of the chatuaqua.

The second part of the chatauqua was lively with questions from the audience. During the monologue, Bibbs explained that Pleasant had funded abolitionist John Brown. There were many questions about other acquaitances Pleasant may have had during that time. When someone asked about Rosa Parks, Bibbs as Pleasant showed no recognition of the name and explained that though Parks was a popular name in some parts of the country she didn’t recall meeting a “Rosa” Parks.

During the final part of the chatauqua in which Bibbs interacted with the audience as herself she explained that much of the dialogue used came from Pleasant’s original letters and other period documentation.

Jesyca White, a nursing major, said that she was impressed by Bibbs’ dedication in that she spent 17 years learning about the little known Pleasant followed by creating this production to share her knowledge of Pleasant with others.

“[The chatauqua] format wasn’t as attacking as other formats. It was more like a forum of information that you could process yourself. It was more empathetic,” said White.

Bibbs has more information at her website

During her introduction, Elizabeth Meehan thanked faculty member Darius Spearman for bringing Bibbs to the attention of the World Cultures Program. Spearman became familiar with Bibbs’ work while previously working at Sonoma State.

Spearman said he was impressed by Bibbs and the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant.

“Pleasant took the rough and tumble situation in San Francisco where there was one woman for every six men and used it to thrive,” said Spearman.

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Susheel Bibbs Brings Mary Pleasant to Life