On Valentine's Day, the voice of ex-slave and Underground Railroad "conductor," Harriet Tubman will come to life as she takes audiences through the harrowing and often dangerous journey to freedom.
Tubman will be channeled through veteran actress, Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, who has portrayed the abolitionist since 1993 in her one-woman play, "Harriet Tubman: The Chosen One."
"I ask the audience to become fugitive slaves, talking to them, taking them on a journey and I have them exhausted at the end," said Briley-Strand, a 50-something-year-old performer who's been in the businesses for more than 30 years. "She was to me, such a well-rounded, passionate person. She developed her mind, and the fact is, this was what she was destined to do."
Briley-Strand, who created the dialogue for the 45-minute show for about 20 years, will perform at The Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast on Thursday, Feb. 14 for two shows. In the performance, she transforms into more than a dozen characters, taking the audience on one of the 19 journeys Tubman traveled through The Underground Railroad. Some of the characters are Tubman as an adult, as a child, her father, brothers, and other slaves.
"She had such stamina and strength and was a warrior for the Lord," Briley-Strand said.
Each performance is followed by a brief question and answer session. The actor spent the last two decades perfecting the character, discovering who she was, visiting libraries, and doing extensive research."She was a great suffragette and entrepreneur. God gives a wonderful direction and purpose for her life."
Tubman was an African-American slave who escaped from slavery in the South to become a leading abolitionist before the Civil War. Born in Maryland in 1820, she successfully escaped in 1849. However, she returned numerous times to rescue family members and others from the plantation system. She led hundreds to freedom in the North as the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, an elaborate secret network of safe houses and anti-slavery activists organized for that purpose. This year, March 10, marks the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., Briley-Strand grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. She graduated from Fordham University and is a member of several acting organizations. Besides "The Chosen One," her television and movie credits are extensive and include movies such as "A Dirty Shame," and "Species II," and television shows such as "Law and Order," and "Homicide," as well as several voice-overs and commercials. She was a 1997 Cable Ace Award winner for the best educational program series for the health education of children in Prince George's County Public Schools.
Briley-Strand is the founder, and chief executive of See The Fruits Inc., a company that uses the arts to teach American History. She lives in Ft. Washington, Md., and has been married for nearly 40 years to Edward Strand; she is a mother of two adult children and four grandchildren. She has performed before many student audiences to critical acclaim.
"We were all moved and riveted by both your acting and singing abilities," wrote a youth services supervisor in the Prince William Public Library System in Prince William, Va., on Briley-Strand's website for "The Chosen One." "You drew the biggest audience that we've had for a storytelling program all year."
"Thank you for coming to Laurel Ridge and performing as Harriet Tubman. It was really cool that you performed for us," wrote another audience member. "It was like there were 20 actors and actresses instead of just one ... I never knew that Harriet was a spy and a nurse in the Union Army. I really liked how you were so dramatic."
To add further to her performance, she has a traveling photographic exhibit, Portals Through Time, which is displayed during the show. It offers the audience an opportunity to walk through some of the most interesting times in American history with a glimpse into Tubman's life. The exhibit is a combination of photographs and other artifacts.
"I've been to 38 states, and my husband is the photographer and he takes pictures of all the places we've been," she said, adding that the exhibit also brings history to life. It shares the experience, including real shackles she received from a museum, as well as a quilt made in 1895.
Each year, THEARC brings programs like this to the community to educate and inspire children and adults living east of the Anacostia River. This event was made possible in part by the support of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and William C. Smith & Co.
Besides the two upcoming free shows at THEARC, Briley-Strand has a slate of performances throughout Black History Month and beyond.
"To do what you love and to get paid for it, I'm living in grace," Briley-Strand said.
THEARC Theater at 1901 Mississippi Ave., SE, will hold two showings of "Harriet Tubman: The Chosen One," on Feb. 14th, at 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., and 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. For more information or to RSVP, please visit http://www.thearcdc.org/events/harriet-tubman-chosen-one-0 or call 202-889-5901.