Reviewed by Mara Guyer I had never seen a person crawl out of a casket…
Recently, I had the privilege of taking my 9-year old daughter to see Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. Watching this play, she and I were immersed in the history of Harriet Tubman—a story not just of her heroic role in the Underground Railroad fighting slavery, but also how some of America tried to forget her.
The play is told through a framing story of Sara Bradford pitching a reluctant publisher an authorized biography of Tubman to raise money for the abolitionist. From Harriet’s escape from slavery, to returning to slave states to free her family and others, to her time as a nurse during the Civil War, we see scenes that teach us about her determination and bravery fighting for the freedom of her fellow humans. We then learn about the treatment of Harriet Tubman after the war: how as a black woman, she was treated as a second-class citizen and how she struggled to collect a well-earned and deserved pension from the United States government.
The performances were excellent, particularly that of Marjie Southerland who plays Tubman throughout her life. Southerland transforms seamlessly from a young enslaved person to a powerful adult to an elderly advocate for Women’s Suffrage. She anchors the rest of the cast in their performances of spiritual music, used by Tubman to communicate clandestinely as she worked tirelessly in the American South.
Like all productions at the Children’s Theatre, the performance is intimate, with the audience right up close. Sitting near the front, my daughter’s view of the stage was framed through reeds and cattails, greatly adding to the immersive experience. About an hour long with no intermission, the show is appropriate for nine and up; it gets its message across clearly without being heavy-handed nor talking down to the children. There is a gunshot toward the beginning of the show that might frighten an unprepared child (warnings are posted), and there is a context-appropriate use of the n-word spoken by a racist white character. It could serve as an after-play prompt to talk to your child about racist words and their power today.
I recommend this play to any family who wants to engage in our shared experience of history. I’m always surprised at how much I learn at historical plays that are produced for children. I only knew the most surface level telling of Tubman’s story before this play, and I’m glad I had this opportunity to go a few levels deeper.
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad runs through March 1 at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. For showtimes and tickets, go here.