Students’ Talents Abound in ‘Harriet and the Underground’

The cast of "Harriet and the Underground" (Courtesy of Bishop McNamara High School Sankofa program)
The cast of "Harriet and the Underground" (Courtesy of Bishop McNamara High School Sankofa program)

Making high school students enthusiastic about history lessons is a tall task, but it’s precisely what Bishop McNamara High School’s Sankofa program has accomplished, via its production of “Harriet and the Underground,” the story of American legend Harriet Tubman.

​The one-night-only production at the Warner Theater was a professional, educational and entertaining dance theater adaptation of the life and times of the Maryland-born Tubman, famed liberator of slaves on the Underground Railroad.

​The Sankofa program at the Forestville school, once an after-school group with eight students, has now blossomed to include 140 high schoolers who engage in traditional African dance, drumming and theater under the direction of Victor Bah, who wrote and directed “Harriet and the Underground.”

The original theatrical extravaganza was performed at the school in the spring. But Bah had loftier ideas.

​The powerhouse production certainly wasn’t Bah’s first with Sankofa, which adeptly utilizes the energy, creativity and intelligence of the student body.

​”The process to create today’s production started many months ago,” Bah said. “I have taken some artistic liberties in how to tell this story. Most importantly, you will see Harriet’s personality traits of Faithfulness, Strength, Persistence, her sense of Justice and Selflessness all performed as dance characters called the Will of Steel. These dancers join Harriet on stage when the need to summon her inner strengths arises.”

​Other innovative methods of telling the story of the women who was called the “Moses of her people” were employed in this engaging event. Jasmine Wilson, Taylor Marshall and Jordyn Young served as the narrators who told Harriet Tubman’s story through her own words and historical recitations.

Tubman’s character was performed by Nia Hayes, who aptly danced and acted the pivotal moment in her life.

​The ability of the cast of student performers to convey — with sparse dialogue — intense scenes such as the capture of slaves from the African coast, the misery of the Middle Passage and the inhumane and sinister conditions of slavery in America was powerful and clear. But the energy and expressiveness of the dances truly relayed the emotional weight of Tubman’s struggle for abolition.

​The production was enhanced by the sophisticated technology of the scenery, which included 3-D animation, historical photos of slaves, documents and decrees, making this history lesson one that taught on a myriad of levels. The music, which ranged from recorded pieces by artists as diverse as Bobby McFerrin and Hans Zimmer, interspersed with live music performed by the students, served to further underscore what was described as “soul-stirring theater” by one audience member.

​What truly made “Harriet and the Underground” a phenomenal evening of creativity, entertainment and innovation was the realization that almost all aspects of the production, from costume design and choreography, to the live traditional drum orchestra and set design, were chiefly done by the students with the support of their teachers.

​Students also sold programs, T-shirts and DVDs to help fund the extravaganza.

​Rousing approval of the audience made up largely of parents, grandparents and school alumni, demonstrated how encouragement and guidance produces excellence.

​Assistant director Christy N. Bartholomew, who did everything from “manning the headset” to dancing as a member of the field slave cast, hopes that “Harriet and the Underground” can have a life beyond the weekend performance.

​”I’m so proud of these young people,” she said after months of grueling 10-hour rehearsals, directing, dancing and pinch-hitting publicity requests. “Yes, indeed I am.”

​Bah, a native of Ghana, began dancing and acting at an early age and traveled extensively with Ghana’s national dance company, Abbigromma.

​”Significant research went into this production and I’ve strived for great historical accuracy,” Bah said. “Using dance, drumming and Harriet’s own words as well as Civil War documentary films and literature from that era we strive to bring to life the story of the great Harriet Tubman.”

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