“I was listening to a WSHU podcast by Davis Dunavin when I first learned about Ammi Phillips,” said Thrown Stone theater company’s co-artistic director Jonathan Winn. “It was in December and it was one of those moments,” he said, recapturing the excitement of discovering a subject he wanted to pursue. The subject was Ammi Phillips, an itinerant American frontier portrait artist. Once Winn started researching, he knew that this story would make a fine play.

It certainly has all the makings of a good play given the folk artist was born in Connecticut. That’s a local connection that Thrown Stone’s audiences would certainly appreciate and there’s an element of mystery and discovery about the artist who rarely signed his work. There’s also plenty of drama in Phillips’ story since the artist’s life coincided with the abolition of slavery in Connecticut between 1784 and 1848. That America is now in the throes of huge changes, such a play would undoubtedly be timely.

“Connecticut was the biggest and the last New England state to abolish slavery,” stated the enthusiastic director who already had done plenty of his own research.” According to Winn, he and his co-artistic director, Jason Peck, discussed many things that often fell by the wayside due to funding. Commissioning original plays was also frequently talked about. This was different. It was the story of a man who lived and traveled during a time of great change. Born between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Winn imagined what it must have been like living in a country during so much change. Phillips, a prolific portrait artist traveled and painted throughout Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. Winn was so invested in the history of this traveling artist that he imagined that Phillips probably rode a horse to various homes on roads that we now travel and drive on. It would be interesting to learn of the challenges the artist experienced through such turbulent times.

Once the co-artistic directors realized that with a grant from the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) and a matching grant from the Offutt Charitable Trust, they had the funding for commissioning an original play. “Offutt is so excited about this that they want their name on this play,” said Winn. With funds in place, they decided that Jacqueline Goldfinger would be the playwright for the project. She had collaborated with Thrown Stone on her play “The Arsonists” which was presented in 2018.

Peck said “Her characters are every day, often overlooked Americans, whose struggles we connect with, while acknowledging their problematic legacies.” With paintings at the Museum of American Folk Art as well as the Kent Historical Society, there’s plenty of interest being generated regarding Ammi Phillips.

“I’m eager to learn more about him and his life,” said Winn. “I want his story to be told through his paintings and his experiences. With such tiresome negativity in our current lives, Ammi Phillips’ story is most uplifting.”

Plans are underway for playwright Goldfinger to visit here at the beginning of 2021 where she will also visit the Kent Historical Society as part of her research. Thrown Stone expects to receive a first draft in the summer of 2021 with workshops and a second draft in September and October.

Waiting for the arrival of this play and its exciting premiere is bound to bring audiences to the charming black box theater in Ridgefield.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a founder and former member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and a current member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com.