In the winter, Toronto’s Factory Theatre becomes home to Fringe Toronto’s Next Stage Festival, the self-described “curated, boutique” festival. For those...
1 March 2014: Carousel Players’ mandate is to create professional theatre for young audiences aged 5-15. So, what impression would one of their shows have on a group of University students? The DARTcritics reviewed Carousel’s production of The Power of Harriet T, imagining they were writing for a school newsletter to help parents decide if the production was right for their kids (some of these reviews are below). We then spent a class session talking about these reviews and about the ways in which the production may be pushing the boundaries of children’s theatre.
While sifting through our reviews of the play, the first question to surface was the subject matter – the experiences of American slave and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman: was it age-appropriate? Carousel recommends it for grades 4-8: that is, children aged nine and up. There were mixed views in the class about this issue. Some students professed concern that some of the gruesome details we hear about in the show – Africans being taken from their homes, sold into slavery, and many of them smothered in piles of bodies below decks in slave ships – might be too difficult for children. But others said they felt that the age limit was actually too high, that kids these days are desensitized to violence. Others argued that it’s important not to not shield children from the hard facts of history. It is ultimately up to schools and parents to make judgements on the capacities and limits of young viewers. Certainly children these days are exposed to many other situations that are much more violent than the show: video games, movies, bullying, rough housing, and so forth. We also discussed the extent to which the harsh material in the show was expressed through song and choreographed movement; the focus was definitely not on the violence, but the importance of honouring history.
Too often we hear children’s theatre criticized for talking down to its audience. My peers all agreed that children know when they are being patronized. We talked about “spoon-feeding” a message to an audience, and we agreed that The Power of Harriet T avoided this. There were obviously underlying messages, such as “slavery is bad” and “it is amazing what can be accomplished in the face of adversity”, but we were not hit over the head with them. Instead, we watched Harriet Tubman’s story, and were free to come to our own conclusions. We found this an effective technique that made for an excellent piece of theatre. At the end of the show, Carousel held a talk-back, and most of the questions came from children, asking very smart, intellectual questions. This just goes to show that if you treat a child with the respect they deserve and make them feel equal and smart, they will rise to the occasion and come out of their shell.
Most of us learn about Harriet Tubman in school; slavery was abolished long again the United States. Why is this play still relevant and still being toured? This question led to a lengthy discussion amongst the class about pop culture and some recent portrayals of slavery, such as the well-received film 12 Years a Slave. We agreed that we still have some work to do in our society in acknowledging that slavery happened, and is still happening in some countries around the world. It is crucially important that we not forget history. We may feel like we know the difference betwen right and wrong; this play helps children find their way through a difficult story about the past and draw their own conclusions. These children are the future and they are in charge of making sure the future does not repeat the past. –Janelle Hazelton and Sarah Mason
16 February 2014: The DARTcritics attended a performance of Carousel Players’ The Power of Harriet T on 1 February. Here are several of their reviews.
Amanda McDonnell writes: What makes children’s theatre so captivating? It is its ability to take a serious story and present it in a way that delivers education while entertaining young audiences. Carousel Players’ recent production of The Power of Harriet T by Michael Miller, directed by Thomas Morgan Jones, is thought-provoking and educational while providing a clear story that is enjoyable and exciting for audiences young and old.
Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist who guided her fellow slaves to freedom in Canada – more specifically St. Catharines, Ontario – in the 1850s and 1860s via the Underground Railroad. Most of the play’s action is set in Maryland where we learn of Harriet’s life as a slave; she then journeys to Pennsylvania and Canada and becomes devoted to saving her family and others from slavery.
The central character, Tubman, is played by both Virgilia Griffith and Cherissa Richards, and they feed off each other’s energy expertly. The fast paced transitions where the two actresses flip between Harriet and the secondary characters are executed seamlessly. It is as if they are breathing as one during moments of the play. I always knew who was playing Harriet and who was playing another character.
There were also moments when both actors were playing Harriet simultaneously. These moments were fun and offered a glimpse into her inner life. We could understand the motivation for Tubman’s actions and could see the perseverance that drove her to find a better life for herself and her family. It also allowed for comical moments when Harriet bantered with herself while making decisions. These witty moments were effective tools to move the scenes along.
The physical movement in the production is strong. Choreography was used to illustrate actions that could not have been communicated through words alone. An example of this is when Harriet is cleaning the house, like Cinderella, moving in a line across the stage using gestures to demonstrate different tasks such as washing the walls, making the dinner, and soothing the baby.
The musical aspects and the sound effects were composed by Andrew Penner and performed live by musicians Gordon Bolan and Alejandro Céspedes. The songs were catchy and the actors’ harmonies beautiful. The score and songs effectively communicate the feelings that Harriet experiences.
The Power of Harriet T is a well-rounded production. It comes across to young audiences as fun without seeming like a history lecture, while still being engaging for older spectators. History and theatre collide and create a powerful balance.
Misha Harding writes: History can often be difficult to bring to life in a classroom. With February being Black History Month, it’s important to get children engaged and make them understand why this is an important time. Textbooks are great tools, but can never really get across the historic hardships that people of colour faced for so long.
The Power of Harriet T, which played on 1 February at the Courthouse Theatre, is a perfect example of a history lesson done right. The show follows the early life of Harriet Tubman, the African-American woman who rescued over 300 slaves using the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, and brought many of them to our very own St. Catharines.
Tubman was born into slavery, and had to work hard throughout her childhood. When she was not more than six, she was forced to do an unrealistic number of jobs, including minding a cruel woman’s baby. Whenever the baby cried, she was whipped repeatedly, which left brutal scars on her neck. The show explores heartbreaking moments like these, all the way through to Tubman’s eventual escape from slavery as a grown woman, her journey to Canada, and her frequent return visits to the United States to free her family and others like them.
The production doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of Tubman’s life. However, through music, mime, and narration, the scenes that showcase these moments, while still difficult to watch, are stylized, and done in a tasteful way that children can understand and engage with. Every hit, slap, or moment of abuse is executed with the actors standing well away from each other, and are clearly not real – yet they hold as much emotional validity as if they were.
The acting in the show is excellent. Cherissa Richards and Virgilia Griffith share the role of Tubman, and are equally talented. The two feed off each other, and their vocals blend beautifully. You feel yourself knowing and loving the woman you have been learning about since you were a child. Alejandro Céspedes and Gordon Bolan play different objects and instruments, always supporting the action onstage. Although they are not the focus, the show would simply not exist without the talents of these two.
After curtain call, the actors came back onstage and answered questions from the audience. It was at this point that I realized how many kids were watching the show with me – and how many of them had questions for the actors. All of them were interested in learning more information about the making of the production, and more importantly, about the life of Harriet Tubman.
This isn’t just good children’s theatre – it’s good theatre, period. If only everything could be taught to children in such an exciting, accessible, intelligent way. For now though, The Power of Harriet T is bringing education to life, and man, is it a great substitute.
Casey Laidlaw writes: Do you want to expose your children to a powerful piece of theatre that is thought provoking, historical, educational and engaging all at once? Then The Power of Harriet T is a must-see! This beautifully crafted play, by Michael Miller, tells the story of slavery through the real-life story of Harriet Tubman. It effectively displays the struggle that African Americans faced when forced into slavery. It follows Tubman’s journey as she experiences racism, violence, and finally freedom.
The main character, Tubman, along with every other character in the show are played interchangeably by Cherissa Richards and Virgilia Griffith. These two actors embodied the various characters so precisely that it was always clear who they were portraying at any given moment. They displayed big, beautiful movement as they embarked on Harriet T’s journey. When they moved simultaneously across the stage, walking over blocks as well as the floor, we could see the entire journey playing out right in front of our eyes.
There were also two musicians present on stage throughout the production. Gordon Bolan and Alejandro Céspedes created a captivating sound-image that added depth and clarity, bringing the whole show together. I found myself completely drawn in by the music and sounds, making me feel engulfed and engaged throughout. The voices of all the actors were also absolutely outstanding. When Richards and Griffith began to sing, my attention was caught and held.
The Power of Harriet T is a useful educational tool to help children understand and learn more about history. I am confident that each and every child that watches this show will leave with questions, answers, and interest in subject matter that is still relevant and important in society today.
6 February 2014: Two of the DARTcritics team are behind the scenes of Carousel Players production of The Power of Harriet T. Here’s their report from a recent rehearsal.
Janelle Hazelton and Sarah Mason write: Thanks to our experiences growing up, our idea of children’s theatre revolves around purple dinosaurs singing about meatballs and love, or puppets teaching the alphabet. Although these have their place in children’s entertainment, they tend not to invoke serious themes or provocative thought. Thankfully, a St. Catharines children’s theatre company is turning this stereotype on its head. Carousel Players is remounting The Power of Harriet T, a play written twenty years ago by Michael Miller. The play was produced for five previous seasons by Carousel Players, between the years 1991 and 2004. It deals with the struggles of a black American woman, Harriet Tubman, during the times of slavery and the Underground Railroad. You won’t find any dancing dinosaurs here – this script doesn’t shy away from difficult details, and is sure to deeply affect both the younger generation and adults alike.
Our small team of two #DARTCritics had the privilege to sit in on a rehearsal on January 21st, and neither of us was prepared for the experience that awaited us. Right off the bat, we witnessed fight choreography, heart-breaking monologues, and fabulous cooperation between director Thomas Morgan Jones and stage manager Jessica Stinson. The team working on Harriet T are a tight knit group and not afraid to push the limits and try new things when the opportunity arose. The rehearsal seemed like the same well-oiled network of people that brought Harriet and many other escaped slaves to safety – and now Carousel Players is bringing her story to you. Having spent nearly the first 30 years of her life in slavery, Tubman fled to Pennsylvania and joined the Underground Railway to help her family, friends, and others looking to make the same escape she did, to the free American North, and eventually Canada. The Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad line but rather a metaphoric term for the individuals and organizations that would help slaves escape by foot, hidden in wagons, and sometimes by rail. This story is all the more important to tell as February is Black History month, and this story is part of our local heritage. After all, St. Catharines was where most of Tubman’s rescue missions ended, and she lived here frequently between 1851 – 1861.
It was surely a sight to see the talent unfold in front of our eyes. The two leading ladies, Cherissa Richards and Virgilia Griffith, were able to take several instructions at once and execute them flawlessly. Both actors portray Harriet Tubman and many other characters she interacts with throughout the show. It takes an incredibly talented group of people to become so synchronized in the way each one of them moves and thinks. Richards and Griffith both have a beautiful understanding of their bodies that allows them to move flawlessly and hypnotically together throughout the show. All of the clean actions act as a guide that takes the audience on an adventure through a proud historical moment. The performers’ upbeat attitudes were an important asset when dealing with the heavy historical context and troubling subject matter, and they had help creating perfect harmonies from the live musicians as well. There is some physical violence depicted towards the beginning of the show; however, it is not presented in a way that highlights the violence, and instead the focus remains on the context for it. The intent seems clearly to reflect life under the conditions of slavery, and why it felt imperative to Tubman to escape it.
Did we mention there are live music and sound effects? Gordon Bolan and Alejandro Cespedes share their talents with the audience, playing multiple instruments – including their voices – while also physically interacting with the actors at some moments. Although we witnessed the difficulties around perfectly timing a sound effect with the acting, the result is very rewarding. This is the first time Carousel has integrated live instrumentals into the production, and we both agreed it was a fine artistic choice that will further immerse audiences into Harriet’s story.
This show is both educational and entertaining. It is recommended for anyone aged nine and up, as some of the material might be hard to follow for anyone younger. The catchy songs casually intertwined through the show here and there create a family friendly environment. The production is booked to perform in over 40 Ontario schools through the months of February and March. Don’t fret if you are not involved with these schools, because they are also performing at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in St. Catharines on February 1st, and from February 5th-8th they will be performing at the Grand Theatre in London. The rehearsal we saw was hugely intriguing and we imagine the final show will only be 100 times better.
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