Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Two theatre events in Hamilton during Black History Month deserve mention, although we have not done full reviews because each had only one or two performances. Both shows made excellent theatre from the words of history itself. Leslie McCurdy presented her one-woman show, “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman”, on February 4 at the Lincoln Alexander Centre. Leslie hails from Windsor, Ontario, and has been touring this show for 14 years in Canada and the U.S. Using simple, on-stage costume changes, occasional singing, and superb acting, she presents Harriet Tubman’s life-story.
Tubman was the child of slaves in Maryland escaping on the Underground Railroad (a series of safe houses run by anti-slavery advocates), and then returning many times to the south to help her family and dozens of other slaves escape to freedom. She went on to work with the Union Army during the Civil War, and eventually settled in Auburn, New York and died in 1913, just over 90 years old; she also had a home in St. Kitt’s.
Tubman’s story is well-known, but it is good to hear it told from her point of view, using many of her own words (written down by others, as she could not read and write although she was a powerful speaker). McCurdy effectively recreated the spirit of this extraordinary woman, and (as Harriet in old age) urged the audience to follow their own dreams and not be deterred by fear. McCurdy may return to Hamilton with other one-woman plays about Black women in history; we will keep you posted. Wonderful African drumming preceded and followed her performance.
Fast forward 100 years from pre-Civil War times and we have “Langston Hughes vs. Joe McCarthy”, written and directed by Ron Weihs, presented on Feb. 15 and 16 by Artword Theatre, of which Weihs is Artistic Director. Based on actual testimony of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) before the U.S. House of Un-American Activities Committee on March 24th. ‘54, the play uses the words of Hughes, movingly portrayed by actor-dancer Learie McNicolls, and of the Senators, voiced by actor Howard Jerome, as well as readings of Hughes’ poems by Tamara Buckland, sometimes accompanied by McNicolls. These readings brought the poems (e.g. “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”) to life.
Hughes was interrogated about being a “Communist” because of the social-justice content of many of his poems, and told the story of his own life during the hearing. (He was only one of many writers and other artists caught up in the investigations and black-listing of that time, spear-headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy.) In the production, the spoken words were beautifully enhanced by recorded jazz music and projected photographs of urban and rural poor (both Black and white) during the Depression; Judith Sandiford was designer, producer, and stage manager. (Ron and Judith have presented this play before at the Artword Artbar, in various versions).
These two productions demonstrate that when history is dramatized, the events have more emotional impact and become more relevant to our own lives – as we continue to create history, as well as remember it. Although the plays deal with U.S. history, the stories affect us all.
F.Y.I. Today (Feb. 18th) is the 156th anniversary of the inaugural of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America.