Reviewed by Fiona Bessey-Bushnell
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad begins with the talented Audrey Snyder as Sarah Bradford trying to convince a publisher (played by Lucas Hall) to publish a book about abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy, Harriet Tubman. Sarah has named the book, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, based on interviews with Harriet. Throughout the production, the cast acts out these scenes within the framework of the discussion between Sarah and the publisher. The publisher, who at first flatly refuses the biography because it’s about a black woman, begins to understand the power of Harriet’s message as the story unfolds.
Nicole Pearson plays Harriet, a conductor who traveled to the South on nineteen journeys and escorted over three hundred slaves north toward freedom on the Underground Railroad’s network of safe houses. Pearson’s gifted portrayal of the woman who offered hope, safety, and a new way of life to so many, evokes an array of emotions – pride, passion, anger, sadness – and jubilance, too. Pearson easily delivers pithy one-liners, such as “I haven’t been this tired since I walked to Canada and back.”
Keydron Dunn, as Henry Ross (Harriet’s brother) and William Still (a fellow conductor) deliver amazing performances. Great chemistry between Pearson’s Harriet and Still offer comic relief. Lucas Hall is cast in dual roles, as the publisher and the master. Todd Patterson, who played Joe and the soldier, was memorable as always (my son recalled his talents from A Year with Frog and Toad a few years back). Ashlee Arden Heyward shone as Harriet’s sister, Mary, as well as Harriet’s mother. The entire cast had great voices and worked well together for inspirational a cappella numbers and spirituals.
The play is brilliantly written by Douglas Jones, who incorporates lesser known facts about Tubman throughout the engaging production. Sarah Roquemore choreographed and directed the powerful show.
The cast is small, and several cast members play multiple roles. This only adds to the intimacy of the group and the transition between characters is seamless. It is a musical, with many musical numbers, and singing interspersed between numbers. The actors narrating use this opportunity to let the theater goers know that slaves often sang as they worked and sent signals to others via this method. Narration plays a key role in this play, as actors smoothly transition to narrate a part of the story, and intersperse historical background.
Threads of humor are woven throughout, and the actors are extremely passionate. My 8-year-old sat in rapt attention, hanging on every word (and chorus). He reflected after the show: “I learned a lot, but it wasn’t boring because it didn’t seem like I was learning until I got a chance to think about it.”
As expected, the topic is a mature one. The opening scene shows a slave escaping into a safe house for hiding, after he has been shot in the arm. There is brief discussion of beatings, as well as other human injustices. Most impressive is the balance of making the play appropriate for children, without minimizing the impact of these historical atrocities.
Audrey Snyder artfully brings everything together by introducing the story, interviewing and getting to know Harriet. Finally, the play comes full circle as she invites Harriet to publicly speak where Harriet delivers her message and vision for the future.
The show runs through February 9 at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, but get your tickets soon. Recommended for ages seven and up. For showtimes and tickets, visit Virginia Repertory Theatre: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, 2014