Entertainment » Theatre

Harrriet Jacobs

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 14, 2010
Kami Smith as Harriet Jacobs in Harriet Jacobs, playing at the Central Square Theater through January 31
Kami Smith as Harriet Jacobs in Harriet Jacobs, playing at the Central Square Theater through January 31  

A young girl dreams of romance against all odds but then she recalculates in Lydia R. Diamond's beautifully astute dramatization of Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl.

Given an emotionally involving production by the Underground Railroad Theatre in collaboration with artists from the Providence Black Repertory Company, which has been perceptively directed under the sure hand of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Harriet Jacobs continues at the Central Square Theatre through January 31.

The slave narrative published prior to the Civil War in 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent languished in private libraries until Oxford University Press (urged by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) re-issued the story of unfathomable evil and the hopes of a girl on the brink of womanhood as part of a series on black women writers of the 19th century. Then, even more recently, in 2004, historian Jean Fagan Yellin, who had earlier authenticated the memoir as the real deal prompting Gates's original interest, wrote her monumental biography of the narrative's author Harriet Jacobs (Harriet Jacobs, A Life).

Companion piece to ’Anne Frank’
(l-r) Kami Smith, Ramona Alexander, and Sheldon Best in Harriet Jacobs, playing at the Central Square Theater through January 31, 2010.  (Source:Elizabeth Stewart)

Companion piece to ’Anne Frank’

Diamond has reached into both sources for a play that is a companion piece to The Diary of Anne Frank and an instant classic in its own right.

Harriet Jacobs’s recollections of life as a slave in Edenton, North Carolina capped by seven years hidden in a crawl space delivers a message of the near miraculous possibility of finding selfhood and maintaining hope while living in the maw of terror.

Everyone involved in the gripping production is on the same page in bringing this uber-powerful, existential adventure from American history to life.

A stage set completely in taupe and black by Susan Zeeman Rogers, scenic and object designer, that borrows its aesthetic from painters William H. Johnson (Going To Church) and Henri Matisse, is at once utilitarian and suggestive. At the rear is a house made of boards that opened up, serves as Harriet’s grandmother’s bakery and, above which, is a tiny garret. The floor of the stage has whirls of lines (reminiscent of Matisse’s book of 100 cut-outs, Jazz) that at one spot become a tree with Spanish moss dripping from its branches.

The ensemble of supporting actors in this all-black cast enters from the same doors as do the audience. They are carrying glass preserve jars lit from within and filled with cotton bolls on their rough bark branches symbolic of the King Cotton economy springing from avaricious plantation owners that kept slavery going in this country long after it was illegal to import Africans as chattel. The white master raping black women that was a significant part of ensuring a new generation of free labor is very much at the heart of the Harriet Jacobs travail.

Daring the audience
Kami Smith and Sheldon Best perform in Harriet Jacobs, playing at the Central Square Theater through January 31, 2010.  (Source:Elizabeth Stewart)

Daring the audience

These versatile actors will play white characters as well as black with a purpose apart from non-traditional casting, instead, suggesting that the story is told from the black perspective and also referential to the survival skills of servants knowing their masters while their masters fail to plumb them (a theme explored to great theatrical effect also by Jean Genet).

The actors pause momentarily facing the audience with a look on their faces that can well be regarded as accusatory or at least with a dare that the audience not turn away from the story that follows. Americans black and white have shied away from coming to terms with the painful truths of slavery.

When Kami Rushell Smith as Harriet emerges from the crawl space, helped down by the ensemble, the mood alters to one of lightness for she is a person who despite the condition of slavery embraces life. Played to perfection by Smith in an endearing portrayal, Harriet is, as she surely was, charming. She is a teenager without guile, and pleasant to look at, all of which attracts different kinds of attention from affection to jealousy to lust. She is also a romantic, who has filled her head with love stories for unlike the vast majority of slaves Harriet was taught to read. She loves to do so even knowing that reading is punishable by death in the codes set up to manage slave life.

Reading also militates against her accepting slavery as her lot for she cannot see herself as merely a piece of property.

Her master, the self satisfied, predatory Dr. James Norcom, in a chilling performance from Raidge, doesn’t see things that way, however, and, even though he is some 40 years older relentlessly pursues Harriet from age 12 on to his wife’s rage. Kortney Adams is quite terrifying as the elegant but cruel, scornful Mrs. Norcom.

When Harriet’s true love Tom, appealingly played by Sheldon Best, offers Norcom $700 Tom has painstakingly set aside dollar by dollar earned though a talent for wood crafting to buy Harriet so he can marry her, Norcom burns the money in the fireplace telling Tom, "I’ll sell her to you for $850 not a penny less....on the day hell freezes over." Tom disappears from Harriet’s life not knowing how to make up for his failure to save her from the tormenting Norcom.

To her grandmother’s disquiet, Harriet accepts the advances of a smitten white lawyer, nicely limned by De’Lon Grant as a man who ultimately is more wed to the institution of slavery than to any feelings he might have for Harriet. The grandmother, in a solid performance from Ramona Lisa Alexander, will be the knight in shining armor when matters come to a head for Harriet, a lesson Harriet absorbs.

The cast of characters is filled out nicely by Obehi Janice as a house servant of Harriet’s age and the baritone voiced Mishell Lilly as a field hand who tells the men’s side of the sordid, gruesome existence that is the life and death as a chattel slave.

At one point in the story Harriet waxes lyrical about the beauty of the cotton fields, then almost shamefaced at her embrace of the landscape but unwilling to deny the visual poetry of it that thrills her, acknowledges the tragic dimension that that they are plowed and harvested with blood and tears. This dichotomy, Harriet’s good heart matched against the evil intentions that envelop her, becomes the portal through which Diamond inveigles the audience to enter Jacobs’s world which they will find unforgettable.

Harriet Jacobs at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge through Sunday, January 31. Performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings thru Sunday matinees. For more information go online at www.centralsquaretheater.org.


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