Powerful storytelling: Theater professor tackles the tragedy of Rosewood
FIU's first Black theater professor is writing a play about a horrific piece of Florida history
By Ethan Torres
An FIU Theatre professor will soon make history by writing and producing a play about history.
Melvin Huffnagle is a New York native who joined FIU in 2021 as its first Black professor of theater. Soon he received a call from Lizzie Jenkins, a descendant of victims of the Rosewood Massacre, a racial attack on the predominantly African American town of Rosewood, Florida, that took place in 1923. The town was entirely destroyed by violence, and the residents were driven out permanently. The story was mostly forgotten until the 1980s, when it was revived and brought to public attention. (For more, visit the FIU Libraries Special Collections, which holds artifacts related to the atrocity.)
Jenkins asked Huffnagle if he would be willing to write a play about her family’s tragic ordeal, and he agreed.
“She invited us up to Archer. It’s a little town right outside of where Rosewood was, about nine miles away from the original site," Huffnagle recalls of his visit up there with another FIU professr. "She took us on a tour of the whole Rosewood area where the massacre occurred and told us everything that happened, step by step, at each one of these places. It was really powerful.”
Jenkins has dedicated her life to making sure her family’s story isn’t forgotten. She recently spoke at the opening ceremony for an exhibition at the FIU Frost Art Museum titled “An Elegy to Rosewood,” which details the story of Rosewood. It will be on display through April 16.
“I’ve heard her speak many times about the incident,” Huffnagle says, “and every time, I notice when she’s done, she just takes this… this breath. It takes a lot out of her. So, part of why I decided to write the play is to alleviate some of that burden for her.”
This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre, so Huffnagle’s goal is to have the play running this fall with the support of the Real Rosewood Foundation and FIU CARTA.
Huffnagle feels honored to have been chosen to tell this story and recognizes something of a burden as well. “Right now, I just feel this tremendous amount of responsibility to do it right. I think maybe I will feel like ‘yeah, I did that’ after it’s up and running.”
The Rosewood play will mark Huffnagle’s debut as a playwright. And while he has television work to his credit – appearances in two different “Law and Order” series and others – and is carving out a niche at FIU by helping aspiring actors who want to pursue the same, he hopes his current project will spur him to continue writing.
“It’s so important for us as people of color and minorities to be able to tell stories from our perspective," he says. "Far too often, for too long, other people have been telling our stories for us, and we don’t have control. They’re telling it from a different perspective, or a different angle, and with different colors, but we should tell our own stories.”