Last year Actress and Playwright Anna Deavere Smith took the stage with a critical performance that biopsied the school to prison pipeline system. It was a critical success and left a lot of people talking. I always thought that the Broadway audience was a certain ilk that even if not already informed was more open to the information.
This past Saturday, I saw what the ground campaign for that work might look like as Singer/Actress/Playwright/Force Lacresha Berry took the stage with her show “Tubman” as part of the Critical Breaks Residency Series at Hi-Arts in Harlem, USA.
The story reimagined what life may be like if legendary hero Harriet Tubman, was placed in our modern day world, facing the complex school system as a young black girl, fighting for her right to be herself in a world that is hell-bent on judging her, defining her, controlling her, and ultimately without intervention destroying her. This piece feels in direct conversation with Ms. Smith’s work which also popped the hood on the school system and how black girls try to navigate through them.
The urgency of the performance resonated throughout the room as young black and brown girls issues, and concerns seem to have to take a back seat to our black boys. This is not to dismiss either, but just to note that the specter of brutality and death looming over black boys cast a light on their cause. But when the light is cast there is also shadow. And many black girls seem to suffer under the shadow.
Berry brings forth this issue in her piece where an entire school just doesn’t seem to understand young Araminta. She is loud and yet won’t talk. She won’t conform, teachers say. She is out of control, say administration heads. Kids like Araminta are just….different, says a slew of characters that seem quick to put Araminta in a box and cast her out of the school because they can’t understand her. One teacher, not so ironically named Ms. Berry is trying to help the girl, but even she has problems understanding the shield that the student has placed around herself.
Berry does a good job of placing the audience in the place of child, teacher, bureaucracy all while splicing bits of Ms. Tubman’s background on the screen behind her. Berry makes good use of the intimate space sometimes breaking into song with jazz and hip-hop laced anthems that inspire and move the story along. Other times she commits to verse.
The real Harriet Tubman’s story is multifaceted and is far denser than the reductive elementary school bio I learned as a child. Her life's work was to save souls, in the flesh and in spirit. Without her, many of our ancestors would not be free. It is no doubt why Obama wanted to pay homage by placing her on the twenty dollar bill. But even Tubman may have problems surviving the public school system. That is not meant to be funny. It is a serious problem that Berry places on the audience’s lap to digest.
Tubman was part of Hi-Arts CRITICAL BREAKS series which offers artists space, rehearsal time and a technical crew in order to bring important work to the stage. According to the website: Hi-ARTS (formerly known as the Hip-Hop Theater Festival) is a leading organization within the urban arts movement. For over seventeen years, Hi-ARTS has consistently broken new ground, advancing urban art by empowering artists to develop bold new works, while creating a lasting and positive impact on urban communities.
Berry, like Smith before her, is doing important work and I was happy to be able to see this work in progress.
Check out Ms. Berry’s Instagram page for future performances.