Harriet's gift

By Herman Silochan

We are on our way to Canada
That cold and distant land
The dire effects of slavery
We can no longer stand!”

How often do you get the opportunity to sit with four hundred Grade 5-7 boisterous students to take in a one hour stage play? In retrospect, I appreciated the experience because it created quite a different perspective on the life of Harriet Tubman, that indomitable historical figure, a woman who fearlessly gave herself to the cause of freedom.

I like to think that I know more about her than the average person, having written several columns on the subject, reviewed a couple of books on her, gone to parts of Southern Ontario, especially St. Catherine’s where she lived for a time, and reverentially ran my hands over the small lectern from which she addressed her congregation. Filled with so many facts, dates and accounts, one can easily bypass the human side. After all, to capture the essence of what made her do what she did, one might take some dramatic licence putting imagination to work within the framework of her time and space.

This is what playwright Michel Miller did, and successfully so, not diminishing, or elevating Tubman beyond her real life persona. So Harriet is not a demi-God, and neither in her slave life is she a half-person. She is just a normal individual, seeking to live a normal life as a free woman, unencumbered in ownership by a plantation overlord; she is capable in her limited English to ask pertinent questions about what’s it like to “be on the outside” to do what she wants, whenever and however. What made her special after her own harrowing escape is that she guided others to freedom in Canada with a determination that seemingly at times bordered on craziness.

Posters distributed for her capture alluded to the fact that she was short in stature, prone to falling asleep on the spot, and that she carried a gun.

The title of the play is “The Power of Harriet T!” But seeing the reaction of those teenagers during and after the performance at the Young People’s Theatre, I renamed it Harriet’s Gift. Want to know why?

Well, I met the director Tanisha Taitt, and the two principal actors, Oyin Oladejo and Dienye Waboso – one played the young Harriet, and the other the elder Harriet.

“What did you think of the play and performance?” Tanisha asked.
I compared my youth and whatever drama to which my friends and I were exposed. Sure, we celebrated our budding intellect, and sure we were boisterous in our own way. But these children, today, at the Young People’s Theatre, were enjoying a broad freedom far greater than that of their grandparents. This freedom is the result by many who fought for, and determined that the future shall be unencumbered as possible. One of the movers and shakers a hundred and fifty years ago, whose actions became legendary in the United States and Canada, was a simple female ex-slave, who grew in stature with the passing of time. The story of her life has made its way into so many publications, essays, university theses, drama and documentary film, that Harriet Tubman is indirectly, and sometimes directly influential in our life’s enjoyment today. Maybe, or maybe not, I am a bit farfetched, but I take the liberty of calling her actions, “Harriet’s Gift”

“Oh my gosh!” Tanisha exclaimed, “You couldn’t have put it better, this is how we feel when we do the drama, and look at today, that extended applause of our young audience.”

Actors Oyin and Dienye, Canadian-born but of West African extraction, are already veterans of the stage. They do not miss a cue in making Harriet a living, breathing, aching, suffering and yet joyous person. I have seen Oyin perform in the musical Da Kink in My Hair, and she was superb. This time around, with drama expanding actual history, she rises to the occasion.

Since it is intended for young audiences, the scenes, actions, interplay are not overly complicated, but the message is clear: anyone and everyone given the right opportunity will avail himself or herself to get on the road to freedom. More than that, the question is what exactly is freedom, the freedom of choice, the freedom to be? Good for the philosopher within us.

In these dreary winter days, celebrating Black History Month, this is a good time to take your children to the Young People’s Theatre for a dose of historical reality spun out in beautiful drama. The play runs to February 22nd. Maybe you Parents might want to organize a group. The management of YPT is interested. Google Young People’s Theatre for all the information.