by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD and Theron Raymond (4th grader)
Prime Stage fills a strategic Pittsburgh theatre gap with their Prime Sprouts series for elementary students. Much of the content for the Pittsburgh Children’s Theater Festival caters to the under 8 set. There are also abundant options for the 13+ crowd that’s more mature content ready. Prime Stage addresses this gap head on, although elementary age is more shoots than sprouts if we’re going for plant metaphors.
Series nomenclature aside, Douglas Jones’ adaptation of Tubman’s story in Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad makes for an impressive show. With a 45-minute running time, it engages and rightsizes without watering down history or cramming in too much. Given Tubman lived well into her nineties, culling her extraordinary life to 45 minutes is a no small feat.
Tubman’s best known for leading slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, and it would be easy to just focus on that rich legacy. However, Jones opens the aperture to present a multi-dimensional view of Tubman’s life and impact, exploring her participation as a nurse and spy for the Union Army.
I took my fourth-grade son with me for the target demographic perspective. Theron was aglow about the show. In fact, he observed the lighting genius of scenic designer, Alex Barnhart. Seven Moravian star lanterns dangle from the backdrop forming the Little Dipper. The 26-pointed Moravian star is traditionally symbolic of Jesus with the many points representing his radiating love and care for all humankind. Barnhart’s Moravian stars leverage heavenly representation to signify the righteousness of the slaves’ journey northward to freedom.
Lanterns mounted on fence posts sweep along the upstage perimeter and mirror the formation of the Big Dipper. Tubman never learned to read or write, but Barnhart elegantly reminds us the stars are a universally accessible map.
See Danso talk about the show here.
Tubman was also a sharp reader of people. As Tubman, Maame Danso brings that to life. The play begins in darkness with dogs barking and shots fired. Tubman raps urgently on a door asking for help as one of her passengers was shot in the arm. The audience’s sense of confusion and uncertainty is mirrored by a Quaker woman (Anne Rematt) who answers the door and wavers. Danso expresses both urgency and assertiveness as their captors are closing in and converts the woman’s (and by extension, the audience’s) hesitancy into positive action to do the right thing.
In the play, author Sarah Bradford (also played by Anne Rematt) skillfully pitches her biography of Tubman to a publisher. The publisher (Isaac Miller) is immediately dismissive of Bradford basely solely on her gender. The book pitch moves in parallel with Tubman’s life, and two stories mutually reinforce one other. Miller also portrays a slave master. The two roles tie together the ways in which white men make assumptions and decisions that reinforce their own power while diminishing others.
Slavery, war and racial injustice are all serious. Director Linda Haston thoughtfully counterbalances with moments of levity. At one point, Tubman’s on a train about to be identified by a couple reading aloud from a reward poster, which notes Tubman is illiterate. Her companion (Sam Lothard) overhears and instructs her to pick up a newspaper. Lothard sings the message to her, tapping into a common communication tool for slaves as white slaveowners didn’t pay attention to song lyrics. The ruse works. The would-be captors immediately dismiss her; someone who can’t read wouldn’t look at the paper. Haston immediately cuts the tension. Lothard leans over with a knowing smile to rotate Tubman’s newspaper right side up.
Jones’ play reminds us reading takes many forms – from stars to songs to people. Illiteracy has a narrow definition that privileges reading and writing. Tubman lacked access to traditional education as a slave. And yet she was a skilled reader, in navigating north and reading human emotion.
Harriet Tubman was a 26-pointed Moravian star. Her light inspired others in and beyond her time. Learn more about the woman they called Black Moses at the New Hazlett with Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad through January 29th. Purchase tickets online here.