Playwright and performer Lacresha Berry spent ten years working as a public school teacher in New York. A teacher inevitably wonders if some children are simply beyond her power to help, and this lends a full-throated desperation to her one-woman show, Tubman, currently part of the D.C. Hip-Hop Theater Festival. The easiest way to bring a broad, systemic problem into the theater is through tragedy – to show a kind-hearted individual swept away by forces larger than herself – but Tubman is Berry’s steadfast refusal to accept this loss of responsibility and hope. For 60 minutes, we see a brilliant playwright throw herself into a fight against a way of institutional thinking she surely knows all too well.
Her play reimagines Harriet Tubman as a young girl in 21st century Harlem. What exactly that means is complicated, but before we get into it, it is worth recalling some significant points in Tubman’s life. Born with the name Araminta Ross, which she later changed, she grew up on a plantation in Maryland. Her masters often beat her, and when she was young, one of her masters threw a heavy metal weight at her skull, giving her permanent brain damage. She was 29 when she escaped from slavery for the first time, but went back South again and again, escorting hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Later, she served as a Union spy during the Civil War, and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. So what would Harriet look like today?
Treated as a thought experiment, it is hard to answer. Once it has happened, historical change feels as if it was inevitable. We know how Harriet’s story ends, and so her heroism and the change it brought with it feel like destiny. But this historical perspective is radically at odds with the sociological storytelling we use to understand our present. There is something inevitable in the way society changes individuals, but what exactly it would take for an individual to change society is impossible to say. Even a story about someone who escapes a system stacked against them immediately ceases to be a story about the system. Until the system changes, it is defined by its ability to keep society within its grasp.
at the Anacostia Arts Center
closes September 14, 2018
All performances are free
Details about the festival, Sept 12 – 16
Berry’s great achievement is to make these two forms of storytelling compatible— the historical and the sociological. She accomplishes this by eschewing narrative entirely. We never see 21st century Harriet; we only see 21st century Araminta. Tubman freezes a single moment and explodes it into its possibilities. This Araminta was also bludgeoned in the head by an abuser, leaving her with the real Harriet’s migraines and narcolepsy, and she ran away from home once, but these are the only similarities with Tubman we are privy to. Instead of her rise to greatness, we get a single event in Araminta’s life. She has thrown a book at a teacher, and she sits onstage, silently rocking and shaking her head as her teachers debate whether or not to expel her. We do not know what she is thinking about.
The adults’ minds are more transparent to us. The play expands into a series of soliloquies from Araminta’s teachers and mother, and their conflict gives the piece its most traditional dramatic movements. All of these people are played by Berry, who comes at her most sympathetic performances with subtlety and force (her villains are more of props, although she makes for a hilarious caricaturist). We follow Ms. Berry (one of the characters, not the playwright), as she struggles with her inability to get through to Araminta. She spars with the racist, dismissive special ed counselor, and with the school’s repulsive Weinstein Jr. of a principal. Best of all is her weepy co-teaching sidekick, Ms. Thorn, who came to Harlem from Connecticut to “serve the community” and just wishes Araminta liked her. But this comical, straightforward attentiveness to psychology does not extend to Araminta.
Berry lays out the adults’ desires, motives, and frustrations with a mix of sympathy and scorn, but she keeps her distance from her protagonist. We know that, physically, she is in pain. She has monologues too, and we know that she is tired and feels misunderstood. However, the inner workings of her head are never strung up in the open air for all to see.
It is easy to imagine another play where the playwright wishes away the problem of her problem student. Maybe we learn she had a tough upbringing and see her strength in fighting through it, or maybe she has a predilection for drawing. But Tubman’s gravity comes from its refusal to discover a “redemptive” quality in its hero, whereby it turns out the bad kid is a good kid after all. The teachers’ struggle, or at least Ms. Berry’s struggle, is that they just do not feel like they understand their student. They quite literally do not know how to communicate with her, meaning to get her to act the way they think will be best for her. Certainly, Berry is deeply sympathetic to Araminta, but the audience is not allowed to understand her either. That opaqueness remains unresolved.
The reason this opaqueness works is the connection between the two Harriets. We do not need to know anything about Araminta to know that this girl will be world-historic. She gets to have infinite promise without Berry having to prove it by showing her future deeds or by showing a premonition of that future in the present. She does not need to and indeed refuses to draw a line between the promising and the promiss-less. Instead, she establishes this connection across time by tearing at the edges of her modern premise. Statistics, sociology texts, and fragments of Tubman’s biography, read in monotone voiceover, break the play into a montage. The original, 19th century Araminta will begin to tell her story in spoken word poetry, and then shift suddenly into the present, and then back, in and out of song. This is Berry at her most manic and her most creative, and she manages to create a mystical distance between her hero and her audience. Araminta does nothing to warrant this unique sense of possibility, but she possesses it. We know this Araminta will become a Harriet—we just do not and can not know how.