‘Cato & Dolly’: In the front row of history

Laura Rocklyn and Kaedon Gray in “Cato & Dolly.” Photo: History At Play LLC/ Nile Scott Studios

As the pandemic silenced and shuttered most area theaters, the interactive, immersive on-line troupe History At Play (HAP), under the leadership of founder Judith Kalaora, has hardly missed a beat. The group presents works chronicling the lives of both famous and largely-forgotten figures, often presenting what the late radio journalist Paul Harvey would call “the story behind the story.” 

Because it presents livestreamed all-virtual productions, it has remained very active during the pandemic. 

HAP’s latest venture Is “Cato & Dolly,” a new play by Patrick Gabridge, originally developed and produced by Plays in Place for the Bostonian Society (now Revolutionary Spaces) at Boston’s Old State House.  

Gabridge is well-known for writing site-specific works such as the acclaimed “Blood on the Snow” about the events surrounding the Boston Massacre, performed where it actually happened at the Old State House. 

This play, which premiered Feb. 12, shines a spotlight on the life of Dorothy Quincy “Dolly” Hancock, performed by Laura Rocklyn. Dolly was the wife of John Hancock, the governor of Massachusetts and president of the Continental Congress whose outsized signature adorns the Declaration of Independence. Dolly, one of 10 children, served as matriarch and host of the family’s Beacon Hill mansion. 

It’s also the story of Cato (Kaedon Gray), a former slave in the Hancock household who serves the family both as a slave and later as a free man, and whose life intersects with the Hancocks in their mansion over the course of 52 years (1764-1816). 

It all takes place in the Beacon Hill mansion where the Hancocks lived, where dramatic events – and a price on John Hancock’s head — forced the Hancock family uproot itself for two years in the midst of the revolution. 

Cato came to America at the age of 8 from Barbados and was enslaved before finally becoming a free man at the age of 30. He had a front-row seat for the earth-shaking events of the American Revolution and its aftermath, and watched such monumental names as Sam Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette come through the double doors in the mansion. 

As befitting a servant in a wealthy household, Cato is well-appointed himself and cares for the family’s fine dress as one of many roles he faithfully fulfilled through the years.  Once that even meant having to carry the gout-ridden Hancock down the stairs to address the citizenry about the ratification of the new country’s Constitution.  

Cato’s family and the Hancocks also shared heartbreak in the form of deaths in both families of beloved children, and Cato’s loss of his wife. John Hancock died in 1793, and Dorothy Quincy Hancock later became Dorothy Quincy Scott, the wife of Maj. James Scott, leaving the Beacon Hill mansion behind for 13 years until she returned after Scott’s death. 

For Cato, being a free man meant very little when it came to supporting his family – with few employment opportunities for free Blacks at the time — and he chose to remain with the family after winning his freedom. 

The online Zoom format of the livestreamed History At Play productions allows theater-goers to interact with and ask questions of the cast after the performance, moderated by Kalaora. 

The production values are first-rate, often featuring period music, costumes and sets. Tickets range from $10-25 pay-what-you-can per viewer.  

History At Play performances are every second and fourth Friday of the month at 7:30, and are available online for 48 hours after each premiere. 

The next performance on Feb. 26 will feature Jon L. Rice in “Crispus Attucks, Revolutionary Recollections.” 

The History At Play production of “Cato & Dolly.” Written by Patrick Gabridge Directed by Judith Kalaora. For more information. Go to the group’s Facebook page or HistoryAtPlay.com.