A vivid theatrical production about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad hits the stage in Toronto
The Power of Harriet T! is the story of the iconic Harriet Tubman, a woman born into slavery in Maryland, who escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Not only did she escape her own bondage but she also risked her liberty eleven times by returning to the South to lead over three hundred to the North and to Canada between 1851 and 1857.
Harriet Tubman’s story is inextricable from Canadian and American history yet I was surprised to read that fewer young people than expected know who she is. I was fortunate to have discovered Ms. Tubman in an elective reading exercise in grade five. That same year, I forced myself to stay awake when my channel hopping landed on a midnight broadcast of the made-for-TV movie, A Woman Called Moses. That’s when my love affair with North American race relations began.
The Power of Harriet T! showcases the strength and determination of a person committed to having dominion over her own self against the historical handicap of being both black and a woman.
She is as stubborn, sullen and strong as a man as the hearsay within the play suggests.
The playwright, Michael Miller, presents a play that carefully integrates elements of slave culture with political and social history that avoids being pedantic or overbearing.
We learn that slaves were valued differently depending on the jobs they did. Slaves who worked in the house rather than in the field were less likely to be sold as quickly. This is important for Harriet’s family whose tie is as vicarious as her master’s whim.
We learn that the North star was a beacon of hope for enslaved people, that dogs were a source of terror and friend-to-friend is the code word that links runaways to freedom.
Harriet embodies the trickster, an important figure in African American folklore, when she exploits her disability to avoid being sold to a different master.
Points of historical interest include the prevailing belief of the day that black people were of a different species and, therefore, deserving of a beating.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 serves as a theatrical device to raise the stakes for runaway slaves. Thus, their journey to freedom becomes longer and more harrowing.
The dialogue is as diverse as the characters that speak it, from the archaic biblical parlance of the Quakers to the southern drawl of the overseer and the vernacular of the mid-Atlantic slaves.
My guest and I were impressed by the character fluidity, how a simple article of clothing or prop transforms the various characters often in the span of one verbal exchange.
We were happy to see that the characters were not presented in a black/white, good/evil dichotomy. Hannah Cheesman plays both the mean and spiteful mistress and the accommodating Quaker. Harriet’s husband, John Tubman, played by Michael Blake, takes advantage of Harriet almost as much as her master does.
Harriet is a hero but more than that, she is a human being. She risks her life to lead others to freedom but threatens potential dissenters with her silver gun when they jeopardize her safety.
The four songs in the performance are reminiscent of West African folk music, slow tempo Motown, slave spirituals and upbeat jazz, respectively. The songs represent the figurative journey from freedom to slavery to freedom again.
The playwright also makes no revisions to the history of Canadian race relations. This challenges our assumptions that Canada has a long history of welcoming diversity with open arms. It does not. “Life will be much harder in Canada,” Harriet admits to a fellow refugee, “But it will be your own.”
The Power of Harriet T! rewards young people with an invaluable lesson in history and rewards its older audience members with subtle references to our cultural legacy.
- The Power of Harriet T! is playing at Young People’s Theatre (165 Front Street East) until February 22, 2013
- Full performance schedule is available online
- Tickets are $15-$20 + HST & service charges
- Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 416-862-2222 or online