Nikky Finney had her poetry books in front of her as members of the Agape Theatre Troupe began to read Voices of Freedom, the group's show that was formed from accounts by African slaves in the Lexington area during the 18th and 19th centuries.
"As they got to certain points, I put Post-Its on poems that I thought would mesh well," Finney said. "I did that for the entire session, went home and plucked those out, made excerpts from the whole poems, and then came back with that basically drafted and read where they would pause and look at me and say, 'What do you have?'"
What they came up with was a 45-minute piece that will be paired with another one-act play, Carolyn Gage's Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist, for a two-performance stand at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday.
"This is exactly the kind of show that the Lyric must have," Finney said before a rehearsal Monday night at Imani Missionary Baptist Church. "It can have all kinds of different shows. We can bring people from out of town. We can bring people from other parts of the world. But it must have this brick in place, or the Lyric was not renovated in the way that I think it should have been renovated."
The show is presented by people from Lexington to enlighten people about the area and its history.
Finney's participation, which will include being on stage to read her poems during the performance, came through a little mutual admiration.
Deb Shoss, who directs most of Agape's shows, interviewed Finney for Kentucky Radio Eye last fall. During the talk, Finney discussed how she was wrapping up work on her new book of poems, Head Off & Split, and Shoss was in the midst of rehearsals for The Duke, the Women, the Music, a production about the women in Duke Ellington's band. It was Agape's first full performance at the newly renovated Lyric, a theater that served Lexington's African-American population in the mid-20th century.
"When she saw The Duke, she went crazy for it," Shoss said. "She said, 'I would love to work with you.'"
Finney says, "These women know each other, work together on different kinds of things in the community and then get together and imagine a different world and use their voices and their intellects and their hearts to make that stage, that community stage that Agape makes.
"Everything about it is at the heart of what I love about art. It teaches, it provokes. It instructs, reminds us, and teaches our young people that you don't have to go far to participate in something like this."
In addition to Finney's work meshing well with the original Voices of Freedom, which Agape has presented before, Shoss and Agape artistic director Cathy Rawlings say they were stunned by how well that piece worked with Harriett Tubman Visits a Therapist, a play that, like Voices, gives graphic accounts of the lives of slaves, including children being torn from their families to be sold at auction, rape at the hands of their masters, and beatings.
"It sounds like a comedy, with the title," says Rawlings, who plays the therapist. "But it's very serious."
Finney is serious about continuing to work with Agape. She says she assumed that her first project would be writing a script for the troupe.
"I thought I would be working with a new set of words that might depict a part of Lexington that we don't often see onstage and in community theater," Finney says. "And it's still something for the future."