As part of this year’s Black History Month, Carousel Players brought an old favourite back to life for a couple of shows at the Sullivan Mahoney Theatre and an extended Ontario school tour until March 7. By happy coincidence one of those stops for the ~Grade 4+ production was at nearby St. Denis School in St. Catharines.
Bringing live theatre to young minds can be a risky business: the content must be appropriate for the age group, able to maintain interest and include “teachable moments” both during and after the performance.
Judging from the pin-drop silence from the students and their teachers as well as the obvious insights and understandings on both sides of the “footlights” during after-show Q&A, the educational component deserves an A+ and the value for the tour’s sponsors worth far more than the actual dollar amount.
Playwright Michael Miller has trimmed down the original 1991 script from a cast of four to two (along with a pair of musicians who obligingly slip in and out of the drama along with their instrumental contributions). The two Harriets (Cherissa Richards and Virgilia Griffith—both constantly engaging and able to draw the audience into the not-that-long-ago world of slavery where those deemed to be less than human beings were bought, sold and mistreated at the whim of their “Masters”) also play all of the other parts from family members to Quakers and a particularly cruel Mistress.
With just a few wardrobe shifts rather than costume changes, it can be a tad confusing to figure out just who is who, but once the method sinks in there were less puzzled looks and more silent ahas as the story unfolded. When the actors asked the audience to give their reasons as to why there was a pair of Harriets—frequently picking up each other’s lines in many of the scenes—the replies stating that “she doubted herself” or she “wrestled with herself” revealed heartening maturity and understanding that speaks as well for the development of future theatregoers as it does for Miller’s craft and director Thomas Morgan-Jones’ inventive realization.
Set and costume designer Julie Tribe has deliberately selected hues (largely pastel and earth tones) along with fabrics that allow the colourful dialogue and significant musical numbers to take centre stage. The quiet reflection of the songs (notably “Wade in the Water”—the original score was thoughtfully composed by Andrew Penner) convincingly reinforced the awful facts of life as a slave; hard work and singing being a couple of ways of enduring inhumanity, hunger and scorn.
Providing most of the melodic requirements was Gordon Bolan playing guitar, banjo and harmonica while the percussion duties were deftly executed by Alejandro Céspedes (traditional drums were occasionally abandoned for the skins: literally, with thighs and chest, giving an extra degree of humanity to the rhythms).
And so the history of the Underground Railroad was imparted without pulling punches or being overly violent (more reported than seen: even the heroic tooth extraction by Harriet on the trek north was left to the imagination: Tarantino would have been dismayed). One wonders how many in the crowd may have been surprised to realize that Harriet Tubman’s “tracks” led to St. Catharines.
After the ferry successfully landed in Niagara Falls and the journey/play came to an end, two further questions provided the impetus for much more food for thought:
“Were any of your relatives slaves?” Tracing ancestry to Trinidad, Nigeria and Cuba, three of the troop replied “yes.” (What might have been the answer to the opposite question—which was never asked?...)
“Why was there slavery?”—the very crux of the matter was punted to the teaching staff, fearing that answer might take longer than the play.
How curious that within the past month or so, the answers (there are many more than one) to that last compelling question found their way to the big screen with 12 Years a Slave (similar to Miller’s invention, a pig sty works as an overt and metaphorical device) and Captain Phillips (where the underpinning reason as to why Somalis take to the high seas, wreaking havoc on wealth-filled cargo ships is never truly probed, leaving the impression—for some—that poor black people are unworthy of sharing the same space as their betters). Has the lesson really been learned or will it take a few more generations to bring the truth home? JWR