Syracuse Stage presents “Possessing Harriet” world premiere inspired by local history


‘Possessing Harriet’ is the story of an enslaved young woman and her escape to freedom

Syracuse, NY – Syracuse Stage continues the 2018/19 season with a world premiere production “Possessing Harriet,” Oct. 17 – Nov. 4.

Written by award-winning local playwright and Syracuse Stage associate artistic director Kyle Bass, the 90-minute drama, commissioned by Onondaga Historical Association, draws inspiration from a slice of 19th century Central New York history concerning a young enslaved woman named Harriet Powell.

Powell was enslaved to a family named Davenport, originally from Central New York who had relocated to Mississippi. In 1839, Powell accompanied the Davenports on a return visit to Syracuse. While staying at a hotel called Syracuse House, Powell met a free black man named Thomas Leonard. With Leonard’s help, Powell slipped away from the Davenports and connected with local abolitionists, including Gerrit Smith, who facilitated her escape to Canada. It was from Smith’s home in Peterboro, New York, that Powell embarked on the final leg of her journey to freedom.

“Possessing Harriet” focuses on the brief and perilous time that Powell hid from slave catchers at Smith’s home. History records that while there, Powell met Smith’s young cousin, Elizabeth Cady, later Elizabeth Cady Stanton, outspoken advocate for women’s rights. The details of that meeting, though, are scant, a brief mention in Stanton’s autobiography. In “Possessing Harriet,” playwright Bass imagines their conversation in dramatic terms.

Syracuse Stage associate artistic director Kyle Bass

“That was the starting point,” Bass said. “Elizabeth Cady and Harriet Powell were the same age when they met, 24. Young women of their time, in very different circumstances, I wondered, what would I want to hear them talk about? How would that go?”

In addition to being the same age, Powell and Cady had “virtually the same skin complexion,” Bass explained. Powell was known as the “Fair Lady Fugitive,” an irony that adds complexity to Bass’ account of their meeting.

“Elizabeth Cady, free white women, an uncommonly educated woman for her time, and Harriet Powell, enslaved,” he said.  “Oh, how different their lives. Oh, how different their dilemmas.”

“Possessing Harriet” takes place in real time. Bass described it as a play that unfolds in “three conversations and two arguments” among four characters. At times, Smith and Leonard join Powell and Cady in the attic hideout. As night falls and the slave catchers draw closer, Powell is forced into a reckoning with the emotional consequences of her decision.

While Syracuse Stage has previously produced world and national premieres, “Possessing Harriet” represents an important step in a revitalized artistic interest in developing new work at the theater. Stage is billing “Possessing Harriet” as a “Cold Read World Premiere Production,” named for the “Cold Read Festival of New Plays” introduced last season. “Possessing Harriet” had a reading as part of the “Cold Read” series last season. “Cold Read” continues in the current season in March 2019, with author Larissa FastHorse featured as the playwright-in-residence.

Artistic Director Robert Hupp announces Syracuse Stage 2018/19 Season

“We are so proud and excited to present this world premiere as the second show in our season,” said Syracuse Stage Artistic Director Robert Hupp. “This is an important story to tell today for our community and our world.”

“Possessing Harriet” also marks the return of director Tazewell Thompson, who served as Syracuse Stage’s artistic director from 1992 – 1995. Thompson said he is pleased to be returning to Syracuse Stage to direct this production. He said “Possessing Harriet” is a play for “our time, filled with friendship, loyalty, courage, hope, and doing the right thing for a culture not your own, attributes that are missing across the country today.”

With the local connection so prominent in the play and production, Syracuse Stage has scheduled five post-show discussions featuring representatives from the theater and the Onondaga Historical Association.

Tickets are now available at www.SyracuseStage.org, by phone at 315-443-3275 and in person at the Box Office.

“Possessing Harriet”

By Kyle Bass

Directed by Tazewell Thompson
Commissioned by Onondaga Historical Association
Presented by Nancy and Bill Byrne

 Special Events

Oct. 17             Pay-What-You-Will Performance @ 7:30 p.m.

There will be 76 tickets available for whatever price patrons wish to pay. Pay-what-you-will tickets must be claimed in person at the Box Office on the day of the performance, subject to availability. The Box Office opens at 10 a.m. and will remain open until the start of the show. There is a limit of two tickets per person.

 

Oct. 19             Opening Night Party (free for ticket holders)

Join the cast for a post-show celebration with live music presented by CNY Jazz, featuring Scott Dennis, food and drinks.

 

Oct. 20            Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D., executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, immediately following the 8 p.m. performance.

 

Oct. 21             Prologue at 1 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

Syracuse Symposium Panel Discussion (free and open to the public)

Immediately following the 2:00 pm matinee, in conjunction with the Syracuse University Humanities Center’s Syracuse Symposium, Stories, Syracuse Stage will host a panel of educators, scholars, and artists whose work reflects the importance of storytelling identities in the American narrative for a conversation that will focus around slave experience and other related questions and ideas. Panelists include Kyle Bass, “Possessing Harriet” playwright; Christian DuComb, associate professor of theatre, Colgate University; John Ernest, English Department chair and professor, University of Delaware; Joan Bryant, associate professor, African American Studies, Syracuse University; and Tazewell Thompson, director, “Possessing Harriet.”

Actor Talkback (free for ticket holders)

A Q&A session with the actors following the 7 p.m. performance. The talkback will be held in the Archbold Theatre.

Oct. 24             Wednesday @ 1 Discussion (free for ticket holders)

Join Gerrit Smith scholar and abolition expert Norman K. Dann for a special Wed@1 lecture. Dann is the author of several books on Gerrit Smith, including “Practical Dreamer: Gerrit Smith and the Crusade for Social Reform,” which was released at the Underground Railroad History Conference where Dann was the keynote speaker.

The lecture will begin at 1 p.m. in the Archbold Theatre.

Open Captioning at 2 p.m. Performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

 

Oct. 25             Happy Hour at 6 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

Enjoy complimentary light fare from local restaurants, half-priced drinks and $5 drink specials at the bar.

 

Oct. 26            Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with historian Norman K. Dann immediately following the 8 p.m. performance.

 

Oct. 27             Prologue at 2 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

 

ASL Interpreted Performance at 3 p.m. for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Meet the Playwright (free for ticket holders)

A conversation and Q&A session with playwright Kyle Bass following the 8 p.m. performance.

Oct. 28            Poetry & Play at 1 pm (free for ticket holders)

This reading series connects the literary arts to the work on stage. Vanessa Johnson and Georgia A. Popoff will share original works that have been prompted by the themes, ideas and images in “Possessing Harriet.” Johnson is a Griot, which is a storyteller in the West African tradition, whose work focuses on social justice, including telling the stories of the enslaved and abolitionists who fought against slavery in the United States. Popoff is an educator, arts-in-education specialist, “Comstock Review” senior editor, Downtown Writers Center Workshops Coordinator, and coauthor of a teachers’ text on poetry in K-12 classrooms. She has three poetry collections, most recently, “Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities” (Tiger Bark Press, June 2015).

Oct. 31            Dinner & Show ($50, includes dinner and show admission)

Enjoy a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. with fellow theatre lovers in the Sutton Pavilion. Seasonal fare prepared by Phoebe’s Restaurant followed by great theatre.

Nov. 1             Prologue at 6:30 p.m. (free for ticket holders)

An intimate, pre-show discussion with “Possessing Harriet” actors one hour prior to curtain. Prologues will be held in the classroom in room 141.

Meet the Playwright (free for ticket holders)

A conversation and Q&A session with playwright Kyle Bass following the 7:30 p.m. performance.

Nov. 2             Last Call

The Syracuse Stage bar will remain open after the show. Patrons will have the opportunity to mingle with the cast and crew of “Possessing Harriet.”

Post-Show Discussion with Onondaga Historical Association (free for ticket holders)

Dive deeper into the true events that inspired “Possessing Harriet” in a post-show discussion with Gregg Tripoli, executive director of Onondaga Historical Association.

Nov. 3             Audio Described Performance at 3 p.m. for patrons who are blind or visually impaired.

Open Captioning at 8 p.m. performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Nov. 4 Open Captioning at 2 p.m. performance for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.