At a family reunion in 2005, Cindy Rock Dlugolecki learned of a previously unknown relative.
He was Jacob Shallus, who penned the original copy of the U.S. Constitution—on parchment —and was Dlugolecki’s first cousin six times removed.
Among the framers of the Constitution were the famous, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Shallus, the son of German immigrants who served as an assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, had a much-lower profile.
A Mechanicsburg playwright, Dlugolecki is casting a spotlight on Shallus and the women connected to him in “The Hand that Holds the Quill,” a dramatic work with music. She based her research on a biography of the scribe by journalist-librarian Arthur Plotnik, who died last year.
Due to the subject matter, the cast of the play is heavily male. However, the wives of some delegates to Philadelphia accompanied their husbands. So, Dlugolecki included a fictional scene in which they are debating the issues at the city’s Robert Morris house.
“I worked hard to give each woman a distinct personality and political perspective,” she said.
The fact that the play’s production team consists of all women is coincidental, Dlugolecki said. In addition to her, they are director Chris Krahulec, producer Janet Bixler, composer Chris Purcell, music director Ellen Carnahan, and stage manager Carol McDonough.
Dlugolecki acknowledged deep gratitude to her team.
“I am in awe of the attention to detail each woman on this creative team has brought to the table,” she said. “‘Quill’ is in very capable hands.”
Work to Do
Dlugolecki believed that her work was largely finished following a 2019 table read. However, subsequent events convinced her otherwise.
“Since then, our nation has experienced two impeachments, Black Lives Matter marches protesting police violence, accusations of election fraud, an insurrection, and threats to voting rights,” she explained. “Now, I believe our democracy is fragile. The ending of the play now acknowledges there is still work to do.”
The play also makes people think about who was fully included in our country when the Constitution was drafted—and who was largely ignored, such as women, people of color and immigrants.
“There have been many unheard votes—silenced voices—in our country’s history,” Dlugolecki said.
The production team is enthusiastic about the play’s evolution.
“This is the first time I’ve worked with music so hot off the press,” Carnahan said. “The cast has been working hard to bring it to life. I think the audience will be pleased with the outcome.”
Purcell said that she was “thrilled” to write the musical score for this unique project.
“It is remarkable that Cindy is related to the individual who penned the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “The words, ‘We the People,’ have taken on a deeply personal meaning to me through the journey of creating, performing and recording the original score.”
Dlugolecki’s writing career began in a high school journalism class. She also taught high school English and creative writing and attended playwriting workshops. A lifelong learner, she enrolled at age 60 in a master’s program for creative writing at Wilkes University. Now 71, she continues to pursue playwriting workshops.
While “Quill” is her latest project, Dlugolecki’s credits include 17 plays of varying lengths, produced mostly in central Pennsylvania theaters. “Great Expectations,” a video script created for the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, won the first-place Proclaim Award, which recognizes Catholic educators.
“Violet Oakley Unveiled,” Dlugolecki’s one-person play about the famous muralist whose works grace the PA Capitol building, will be performed on Nov. 12 and 13 at Open Stage of Harrisburg.
So, did Shallus—portrayed by actor Aaron Booth in “Quill”—realize the enormity of his task that September weekend, as he penned the new nation’s Constitution? His relative who, centuries later, captured his life in a new play, said that she’s not sure.
“I wish I knew,” Dlugolecki said. “He was used to engrossing official documents. However, this task did get him out of debt.”
“The Hand that Holds the Quill” will have three performances at the Capital BlueCross Theatre at Central Penn College, 600 Valley Rd., Summerdale, on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 19, at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.givebutter.com/Quill.
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