Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Harriet Jacobs"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Larry Stark

"Harriet Jacobs"

by Lydia R. Diamond
Inspired by Jacobs' "Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl"
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian

Scenic & Object Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Musical Director/Composer Dr. Clarice LaVerne Thompson
Assistant Director Denise Washington
Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker
Lighting Design by David Roy
Assistant Director Denise Washington
Choreography by Melody Riffin Ward
Assistant Stage Manager Christine D. White
Stage Manager Dominique D. Burford

Harriet Jacobs...............Kami Rushell Smith
Grandma/Ensemble..........Ramona Lisa Alexander
Mary/Ensemble......................Obehi Janice
Tom/Ensemble.......................Sheldon Best
Harold Skinmore/Ensemble..........Mishell Lilly
Mrs. Norcom/Ensemble..............Kortney Adams
Master Norcom/Ensemble...................Raidge
Samuel Treadwell Sawyer/Ensemble...De'Lon Grant

Last week the Underground Railway production of "Harriet Jacobs" finished a run at the Central Square Theatre, and next week the Arena Theatre production of "Stick Fly" will open in the Wimberly space at the Boston Center for The Arts. Obviously: local girl (Lydia R. Diamond) is making good!

There were three unique aspects to the Underground Railway production. First, it was a cooperative venture --- some of the actors were from the Providence Black Repertory Company. Second, Susan Zeeman Rogers' set included a house, or hut, that came apart so the long siding-planks could be laid along the edges of the space as a sort of "freedom road". But one thing that stood out --- not during the show but in retrospect --- was that an all-Black cast played bi-racial characters.

This often happens the other way --- White actors taking Black roles. Here the slave heroine of the story refused to be set up as the concubine of her white master, instead gave herself to a White lawyer who treated their children as chattel, and when she ran away it was not North but to the attic of her grandmother, who was a freed slave that owned her own baking business. None of these details fit the stereotypes of Black history, but in this excellent production they came achingly alive.

Lydia R. Diamond is a faculty member of Boston University --- a Boston playwright like Melinda Lopez, Ronan Noone, and John Kuntz --- but though her plays have been produced here, the many awards listed in the program come from elsewhere. In fact, the production of her "Stick Fly" that will open at the Huntington Theatre's Wimberly performance-space at the Boston Center for The Arts is actually transferring from the Arena Stage in Washington (DC).

Locally, it has been smaller companies that produced her work.

Diamond's work often consists of bringing stories out of books to the stage. I first noticed her when Company One mounted her adaptation of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"; then it was again Company One that produced "Voyeurs de Venus" --- a thoroughly researched but highly theatrical work. "Harriet Jacobs" produced by the Underground Railway Theatre is based on the title-character's "Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl". These last two emphasized circles in blocking: "Voyeurs.." used an on-stage turntable, and "Harriet Jacobs" featured an abstract wooden structure that the cast wheeled around in the three-quarters-thrust playing space of the Central Square Theatre each time scenes changed.

For the Underground Railway production, the former Associate Director of the Providence Black Repertory Company, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, directed actors familiar in both cities in an achingly honest exploration of the material. I look forward eagerly to the opening of "Stick Fly" .

( a k a larry stark )

"Harriet Jacobs" (7 - 31 January)
@ Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA
1 (617) 576-9278

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide