Emotions and anticipation ran high from the start of the performance last night as Glenn Alan, DC Black Theatre Festival executive director, gave a proud introduction to the Living Legacy Series.
Hosted by the Mead Center for American Theater and Arena Stage, the new festival series highlights the, “Best of the best,” in international Black theatre and portrays exquisite stories of famous African Americans by award-winning solo performers. Five one-act plays feature the lives of Fannie Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. If last night’s, The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, is any indication of the caliber of this series, you will not want to miss the rest of these plays.
The basket-weave design of the Kogod Cradle Theatre at the Mead Center seemed uniquely appropriate to this production. True to its name, the 200 seat theatre cupped the performer and audience in an earthy, organic space, perfect for telling Tubman’s life story. Canadian actress, playwright and dancer Leslie McCurdy filled the room with strong, rich songs, commanding immediate attention.
Using spirituals to punctuate and transition between scenes, McCurdy’s performance was exquisite. Her movements, powerful and dance-like, highlighted Tubman’s incredible physical strength as well as her tenacity. It was beautiful to watch McCurdy’s Tubman from head to barefoot toe, skipping, tripping, even sprinting around the entire theatre. Moments of stylized physicality played off boundless childhood energy and her emotional performance emphasized the focused fragility of old age.
What unfolded over the course of 70 minutes was a tale with all the familiar highlights and plenty of forgotten anecdotes. On a bare stage with only a trunk of costumes, McCurdy brought Tubman to life, from childhood slavery on a plantation to her late years as a free woman in upstate New York. McCurdy spent most of the time as Tubman, with minimal sojourns as other characters. Said to use many of Tubman’s own words, the story was a compelling reminder of her indelible legacy.
It is rare to find an audience so excited about a production before it evens begins, but the buzz in the theatre was palpable. The story and themes resonated in seemingly personal ways for many present. McCurdy was right to emphasize that Tubman’s journey began with, “Freedom of the mind.” Tubman first had to conquer fear, anger, doubt, and slavery’s dehumanizing effects before she was had the strength to rise up and become a Moses for her people. More than a history lesson, McCurdy’s Tubman is a contemporary voice for freedom needed yet today.
Theatre is at its best when performance intersects reality and resonates with those present. The Spirit of Harriet Tubman is a moving experience, valuable for both its history and its call to continue freedom’s journey.
Do not miss the rest of the Living Legacy Series, including two more performances of The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, now through July 1st at the Mead Center.
Details and tickets for the Living Legacy Series
Tickets for all events at the DC Black Theatre Festival
The Unconquerable Spirit of Harriet Tubman
Written and performed by Leslie McCurdy
Produced by DC Black Theatre Festival and Arena Stage
Performed at the Kogod Theatre at the Mead Center for American Theater
Reviewed by Rebekah Nettekoven Tello
Leslie McCurdy as Harriet Tubman, 2008