Olaudah Equiano wrote a personal history detailing the horrors of his capture in Africa, through his journey across the Atlantic and his life in slavery until he purchased his freedom and became a successful businessman.
The book was published in 1789 and became a widely read, oft-cited argument for abolition.
Julien Moore, an Elgin Community College student, portrayed Equiano in ECC's staged reading of "Voices of the Middle Passage," a one-act play based on firsthand accounts of the slave trade. The route from Africa to the Americas is known as the middle passage.
Moore, of Elgin, said he knew much of the history detailed in the play but was still struck by the terrible, grisly stories with which he was confronted through the primary source accounts.
"This was just one person's story," Moore said. "There were millions of different stories, some probably just as bad, maybe even way worse."
Equiano's story ends mostly happily, Moore added -- resolution that stayed out of reach for most of the enslaved.
Retired 16th Circuit Court Judge Wiley Edmondson wrote "Voices of the Middle Passage," which was directed by Robert Hines III for a Feb. 12 performance in collaboration with the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce for its leadership academy's discussion of ethics.
Moore said he hoped the audience took away more than just a history lesson.
"I don't want this to be just solely about slavery," Moore said. "I want to send out a message about human suffering and oppression and injustice, period."
On a personal note, he hoped people would reflect -- like he did -- on how good their own lives are in comparison and put day-to-day frustrations in perspective.
Moore has been acting since middle school but got serious about it in 2008. He graduated from ECC in December and is taking additional classes until he transfers to a four-year university where he plans to get a bachelor's degree in acting.
In the past, Moore has played characters similar to him. His role in Voices of the Middle Passage was an opportunity for professional growth in addition to an emotionally charged personal journey.
"This character, he's very different," Moore said of Equiano. "He's definitely got a lot more courage than I do.
"It was a very difficult role, but it was very empowering."
Moore's next show will be "Our Lady of the Underpass," another ECC production about the Virgin Mary image formed in 2005 on the wall along Fullerton Avenue at I-90 in Chicago.
For a while, Moore held back on admitting he wanted to be a professional actor. He said he got caught up in the perception that acting is a dream -- too risky and impractical. But the past two months he has been living and breathing the craft.
"When you place yourself around people who are going for that just as strongly as you are, it no longer seems like just a dream, but more of a door that needs to be opened."