Steal Away: The Living History of Harriet Tubman, the most recent production in the New Perspectives Theatre Company’s World Voices Program, exemplifies the best aspects of children’s theatre: education, entertainment, and interaction.
This short play, ably directed by Melody Brooks, tells the story of an American icon: Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, led many other slaves to freedom in the North. Playwright Rick Balian tells Tubman’s story using flashbacks framed by scenes of a much older Harriet (Denise Lock) being interviewed by a reporter (Brett Maughan) at the dawn of the 20th century. As she talks about her past, puppets take over the tale. At times Harriet was portrayed by a puppet; at others Lock, as Harriet, interacted directly with the other puppets. Regardless of whether it was puppetry or live-action, the play was remarkably effective. Although it condenses a remarkably long and interesting life into less than an hour, Balian creates a strong narrative that hits the important parts of Harriet’s youth and her work on the Underground Railroad, while Brooks made sure that the pacing was tight and kept the children’s attention.
Some of the nicest moments of the production came after the play had ended. At that point, Lock, who remained in character as Harriet the entire time she was in the children’s presence, introduced the rest of the cast/puppeteers (Natalie Lebert, Miebaka Yoannes and Maughan), who joined her onstage. The actors then talked about the show, taught the audience the words and stories behind two Negro spirituals, “Steal Away” and “Let My People Go,” and brought out the puppets for the children to touch and examine. The puppets, created by Sandra Eckert of Easton, PA, were wonderful and led to some interesting discussions about their creation and use.
After approximately an hour (30 minutes for the show and 30 minutes of interacting with the actors and puppets), the children left the theatre with a basic understanding of Harriet Tubman and her times, a couple of new songs to sing, and an appreciation of the craft of theatre. In the best of all worlds, children would spend every Saturday seeing productions like this one.
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Copyright 2006 Byrne Harrison