"Possessing Harriet" at Syr Stage: Underground Rail Freedom Story with Local Ties, Current Themes

Oct 18, 2018

Fair-skinned former slave Harriet Powell's story told in latest Syr Stage play, written by Stage's Kyle Bass, commissioned by Onondaga Historical Association
Credit SyracuseStage.org

Syracuse Stage’s newest play tells a fascinating story of an Underground Railroad escape to freedom, here in Central New York 180 years ago.  The main character in the new play Possessing Harriet made contact with important historical figures, while her story resonates with issues today.


The Onondaga Historical Association commissioned the work, which opens Friday, Oct. 19th.

The Harriet in the play Possessing Harriet was a slave brought to Syracuse by a rich slave-owner.  It was here that she was introduced to the idea of being free.  Even though her journey to both the idea and the reality of freedom was not easy.

Syracuse Stage Associate Artistic Director Kyle Bass wrote the play.  He says Harriet’s journey is from “the Hell She Knows to the Hell She doesn’t Know.”

“The hell she knows is enslavement; the hell she doesn’t know is freedom.  She has to come to a place where she’s willing to pay the price, the heavy price, to get what those around her, certainly Elizabeth and Gerrit … have taken for granted is their freedom and the ideas of freedom.”

The Elizabeth in the story is Elizabeth Cady (Stanton), whom Harriet came in touch with while escaping.  The historical record of the escape also included a huge reward for the time, which Onondaga Historical Association Executive Director Gregg Tripoli says drew immense attention to this particular escaped slave search.

“Everyone was on the hunt for Harriet.  So the fact that she came in contact with Gerrit Smith, who was a pivotal figure, seminal figure on the Underground Railroad, and then to have the presence of Elizabeth Cady as well, who was at that time only 23 and developing her social agenda.”

The story also included a great ruse – which we won’t spoil here – about how that search was crippled by her benefactors to allow Harriet to escape. 

Tripoli wanted to tell the story in theater to bring it alive and help bring more attention to OHA’s treasure trove of local history.  They chose Kyle Bass to write it because of what Tripoli calls his love of language.

“You know, words are so powerful and he uses those words to their utmost.  I think this is really a play to listen to because the language is spectacular and every line means something, and it moves you to a certain point.”

Bass took the historical record of events as a jumping off point.  He then imagined interactions between the slave, as she was presented with the prospect of freedom, and one of the eventual pillars of women’s rights, and how they influenced each other.   

As the play went into rehearsals leading to opening night, it meant Bass had to give up his baby.

“It is like having you soul coming back to you, but only … fractured.  So it’s both familiar and not, and that’s as it should be because I have handed it over to other artists, the director, the actors, who through their process have to make it theirs.  And so in doing that, they take it further and further away from me.  And I think that’s what the dramatist or playwright, I think that’s what we’re kind of addicted to.”

Tripoli believes despite the 1839 setting, messages in the play about color and discrimination resonate today.

And it does make you think bout how little things have changed, even for those who are conscious of their innate racism and are trying to confront that and to deal with, and many times, overcome that…. It has been ingrained so long, that it does take time.”

Bass’s interest in telling the story went deeper than the plot issues on the surface.

“I am very interested in that it’s part of history; I am very interested in that I am very familiar and versed in my family’s history of enslavement.  What interested me was to be able to find a reason to be writing about 1839 in 2018.  If you can’t figure that out, there’s no reason to do it.  I was not interested in writing a history piece; I was not interested in documentary work.  I was much more interested in why this story now….  This speaks very much to 2018 -- fortunately for me as a playwright, unfortunately for us as a country.”

And he notes the nation – again, for good and bad – is uniquely engaged in politics around race and polarization, which he contends relates back to the country’s original sin – slavery.

Possessing Harriet opens Friday, Oct. 19th  and runs thru November 4th at Syracuse Stage.

FUTURE SPECIAL EVENTS SURROUNDING "POSSESSING HARRIET"

Oct. 20            Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket
                          holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D., executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, immediately following the 8 p.m. performance.

Oct. 21             Prologue at 1 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

 

Syracuse Symposium Panel Discussion (free and open to the public)

Immediately following the 2:00 pm matinee, in conjunction with the Syracuse University Humanities Center’s Syracuse Symposium, Stories, Syracuse Stage will host a panel of educators, scholars, and artists whose work reflects the importance of storytelling identities in the American narrative for a conversation that will focus around slave experience and other related questions and ideas. Panelists include Kyle Bass, “Possessing Harriet” playwright; Christian DuComb, associate professor of theatre, Colgate University; John Ernest, English Department chair and professor, University of Delaware; Joan Bryant, associate professor, African American Studies, Syracuse University; and Tazewell Thompson, director, “Possessing Harriet.”

Actor Talkback (free for ticket holders)

A Q&A session with the actors following the 7 p.m. performance. The talkback will be held in the Archbold Theatre.

Oct. 24             Wednesday @ 1 Discussion (free for ticket holders)

Join Gerrit Smith scholar and abolition expert Norman K. Dann for a special Wed@1 lecture. Dann is the author of several books on Gerrit Smith, including “Practical Dreamer: Gerrit Smith and the Crusade for Social Reform,” which was released at the Underground Railroad History Conference where Dann was the keynote speaker.

The lecture will begin at 1 p.m. in the Archbold Theatre.

 

Open Captioning at 2 p.m. Performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

 

Oct. 25             Happy Hour at 6 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

Enjoy complimentary light fare from local restaurants, half-priced drinks and $5 drink specials at the bar.

 

Oct. 26            Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket
                            holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with historian Norman K. Dann immediately following the 8 p.m. performance.

Oct. 27             Prologue at 2 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

 

ASL Interpreted Performance at 3 p.m. for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Meet the Playwright (free for ticket holders)

A conversation and Q&A session with playwright Kyle Bass following the 8 p.m. performance.

Oct. 28            Poetry & Play at 1 pm (free for ticket holders)

                        This reading series connects the literary arts to the work on stage. Vanessa Johnson and Georgia A. Popoff will share original works that have been prompted by the themes, ideas and images in “Possessing Harriet.” Johnson is a Griot, which is a storyteller in the West African tradition, whose work focuses on social justice, including telling the stories of the enslaved and abolitionists who fought against slavery in the United States. Popoff is an educator, arts-in-education specialist, “Comstock Review” senior editor, Downtown Writers Center Workshops Coordinator, and coauthor of a teachers’ text on poetry in K-12 classrooms. She has three poetry collections, most recently, “Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities” (Tiger Bark Press, June 2015).

 

Oct. 31            Dinner & Show ($50, includes dinner and show admission)

Enjoy a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. with fellow theatre lovers in the Sutton Pavilion. Seasonal fare prepared by Phoebe’s Restaurant followed by great theatre.

Nov. 1             Prologue at 6:30 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

 

Meet the Playwright (free for ticket holders)

A conversation and Q&A session with playwright Kyle Bass following the 7:30 p.m. performance.

Nov. 2             Last Call

The Syracuse Stage bar will remain open after the show. Patrons will have the opportunity to mingle with the cast and crew of “Possessing Harriet.”

 

Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with Gregg Tripoli, executive director of Onondaga Historical Association.

Nov. 3             Audio Described Performance at 3 p.m. for patrons who are blind or visually impaired.

                        Open Captioning at 8 p.m. performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Nov. 4             Open Captioning at 2 p.m. performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.