Dallas — In an early scene of Harriet Jacobs, Lydia R. Diamond’s powerful play adapted from Jacobs’ 1861 autobiographical book titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, young Harriet is looking up at the sky and, in the flowery language of the novels she loved reading, she describes the clouds floating over the “beautiful white cotton.” As the pretty house servant, taught to read by her previous mistress, waxes lyrically about what it would be like to float and change shapes, a male slave steps forward and tells a brutal tale of an overseer forcing him and a young black female slave to strip right there in the fields and have sex. When he refuses, he is beaten and the slave girl disappears from the plantation.
Diamond’s interweaving of Harriet’s playful cloud talk with the ugly reality of treating field hands worse than animals is doubly shocking because we see the hopeful dreams of a sensitive, smart young black woman, born a slave, constantly battered by the cruel, heartbreaking stories surrounding her. Soon enough, Harriet is forced to see “the blood and sweat dripping onto my beautiful cotton,” as she narrates her own painful story of constant sexual threats from her white master—and the bizarre path she takes to eventual freedom.
African American Repertory Theater’s regional premiere of Diamond’s 2010 drama, directed with forthright honesty and elegance by Regina Washington, brings a superb ensemble cast of nine actors, most playing multiple roles, to this revealing, historic play. AART fans have come to expect freshness and passion in the company’s productions. Harriet Jacobs fulfills our expectations—and then some.
The show opens with a procession of shirtless black slaves going to the fields and singing a rhythmic work song, as they wheel in a large wooden prop—a shed-like structure with a crawl space. The structure stands as a symbol of both confinement and liberty in front of Prudence Jones’ simple, effective set design, of the framed outline of a small cabin.
Throughout the show, the cast members, unaccompanied by instruments, sing and hum the words and melodies of gospel songs from Music Director Gil Pritchett’s original score. The rising voices extend the emotional resonance of each scene, and bind the shifting narrative rhythmically.
With her round face and expressive eyes, Sydney Sherow Celestin is a high-spirited, resourceful Harriet, just 15 when we meet her. Watchful and quick, she contrives to avoid the sexual advances of her owner, Master Norcom, played with sleazy villainy by Artist Thornton, Jr. The three white roles are convincingly portrayed by black cast members, at the playwright’s instruction.
Terrified she will eventually be raped, Harriet escapes from time to time to visit her independent and beloved Grandma, an independent woman who bought her own freedom and now runs a popular bakery from her cabin. Played with tough love and easy laughter by Renee Miche’al, savvy Grandma jokes with Harriet’s young sweetheart Tom, a sweetly bashful Brandon Christie. After increasing hostility from Mistress Norcom (a high-handed, sneering Deanne Lauvin), and following a wildly desperate ploy to avoid her master’s bed, Harriet turns to Grandma when she decides to run away.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Harriet’s extraordinary tale is her bold and determined decision to hide out for seven years in the tiny crawlspace over a shed behind her grandmother’s cabin. Peeping out through a tiny hole, she watches the two children play which she bore to a white lawyer (an appealingly soft-spoken Darren McElroy) on a promise of freedom. In this mode, Harriet tells of how she finds her voice in that cramped loft, climbing down only occasionally when cautious Grandma brings her biscuits and checks her head for lice.
Threaded between Harriet’s own horrific adventures are the short, terrible and often touching tales of others. One slave smiles and shows us proudly the leather pouch around his neck which holds the bill of sale of his faintly remembered, handsomely priced father. “It makes me feel he’s close, somehow,” says the orphaned son.
The bond of trust and love between Harriet and her grandmother is the link that ties the play together, although her old beau Tom is a surprising source of strength and courage. We know that Harriet survived to write the book, the truth of which has been researched thoroughly and confirmed several times over.
Her heroic acts and her power to endure may remind us of Anne Frank and other writers who kept their spirits and memories alive through writing. Harriet Jacobs’ extraordinary feat of bravery springing from hope in the face of cruelty and inhuman treatment is especially meaningful in light of the despair many feel following the senseless, awful mass murders in Orlando. The play tells us we must not allow destructive evil to destroy our faith in the creative human good we experience daily in each other.
Don’t miss this classy, gripping and uplifting production.