Possessing Harriet - Theater ReviewPosted: Updated:
Possessing Harriet, which is getting its world premiere at Syracuse Stage, is written by Syracuse playwright Kyle Bass. Set in 1839, the play is based on the true incident of Harriet Powell (Nicole King), a bi-racial slave owned by a wealthy Southern family, the Davenports, who escapes while her owners are staying at a luxurious Syracuse hotel. A waiter at the hotel, Thomas (Daniel Morgan Shelly), is perhaps the first free black man Harriet has ever seen and he assures her that escape is possible.
Central New York, was an important hub in the abolitionist movement and when Harriet does escape she eventually finds herself at one of the wealthiest, most ardent abolitionists in the country, Gerrit Smith (Wynn Harmon), whose estate is in the hamlet of Peterboro, in Madison County. Here in an upstairs attic bedroom, Harriet waits it out, as passage to Canada across the St. Lawrence River at Cape Vincent is organized.
Gerrit brings a young Elizabeth Cady (soon to be Elizabeth Cady Stanton) (Lucy Lavely) to meet Harriet, because she has never met an actual slave. He hopes a conversation with Harriet will stir the abolitionist in her. Later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton becomes a major player in the woman’s rights movement, which also played out heavily in Central and Western New York. Historically this meeting did occur, but what the women actually talked about is not entirely known, although there are hints in Cady’s writings.
At a brisk 85 minutes, this play is riveting. Bass’s attention to character and gorgeous theatrical voice are only enhanced by director Tazwell Thompson’s astonishingly good choices. It’s no surprise that Thompson has Opera directing experience, his theatrical compositions are gorgeous. His blocking utilizes the entire stage and often the actors look like characters in a beautiful painting. Of course the exquisite lighting design by Stephen Quandt and perfect set by Donald Eastman add to the beauty of this production. The whole play is infused with urgent energy and piercing intelligence.
So many of the questions and ideas Bass poses are cannily still relevant today. It is a testament to his talents that nothing feels dated or old-fashioned despite the action taking place nearly 200 years ago. This is not a didactic lesson, or polemic grandstanding, it is high caliber dramatic entertainment. Hats off to Syracuse Stage for producing a world premiere of such quality. A big congratulations to Bass and Thompson and the entire cast and crew. This play is a must see for all Central and Northern New York theater lovers.