Lexington native Lacresha Berry was interested in creating a one-woman play about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, but she didn’t want to simply walk through the well-known story of Tubman’s life.
“Tubman” re-imagines the Underground Railroad hero as a high school student growing up in Harlem in the 21st century. In the play, which Berry will present Friday and Saturday at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, Tubman encounters some of today’s problems facing black youth, such as mistreatment of black girls in schools.
While writing the play, Berry thought about what she would do if Tubman were a young girl in her classroom and whether she would recognize the power of Tubman while she was growing up. Berry wanted a way to tell the story of her students with a historical perspective.
“‘Tubman’ is about bringing the past to the modern lens and bringing to light equity in education and bringing to light Harriet as more than just a freedom fighter,” she said.
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The woman behind the play is a 1997 graduate of Tates Creek High school and the University of Kentucky who now teaches in New York. She has written and starred in other one-woman productions, including her original play “BrownGirl. Bluegrass,” an autobiographical tale that highlighted black history in Kentucky. In 2003, Berry played another important black woman, Rosa Parks, when she starred in “Buses” while she was at UK.
Berry chose to create a play about Tubman after researching her for years. As a student, Berry had learned about Tubman as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves to freedom in the early to mid-19th century. Through her research, Berry learned about Tubman the scout, mother, wife and woman. She said it was important to add context to history as opposed to telling just the great parts of Tubman’s life.
“A lot of times in history, we tend to see our heroes as one thing, and so I think by putting her in a different lens, as a girl, makes us realize that she is vulnerable and she feels like the way we feel, and it also gives empathy to her character and to the other people in the world that are like her,” Berry said.
She read about Tubman on Biography.com and in several works about Tubman, including Kate Clifford Larson’s “Bound for the Promised Land.” Berry said preparing for the role was hard, but she tried to mimic photos of Tubman. As for researching the treatment of black girls in schools, Berry used the book “Pushout” by Monique Morris, which chronicles black girls’ experiences from across the country.
Black students, especially black girls, are more likely to be suspended than their white peers, Berry said. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black preschool children were 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children for the 2013-14 school year.
Berry said she has seen this disparity in her career as a spoken-word poetry teacher and artist at New York’s Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design in the Bronx.
“I think kids will be kids, no matter what color they are,” Berry said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a white kid, a brown kid, a red kid, a yellow kid, any kid of different ethnicities, you’re going to act out.”
Donald Mason, director of the Lyric Theatre, said Berry is becoming legendary for her performances in historical plays. “Tubman” is one of a kind, he said. As the only historically black theater in Lexington, the Lyric wants to do Black History Month “right,” and Berry’s performance helps to accomplish that, he said.
“We want to make sure we stay culturally relevant and make sure that these messages are out there,” Mason said.
Mason said Fayette County Public Schools students have been invited to attend a “pre-premiere” performance of “Tubman” on Friday morning. Berry will perform and then will speak more directly to the students at the end, he said. Public performances will be Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
Berry has performed one of the play’s songs for her own students and has gotten positive reviews. In addition to teaching spoken-word poetry in the Bronx, Berry prepares junior and senior high school students before testing as a teaching artist at Wadleigh Secondary School in Manhattan. Her students love that they have a teacher who works on her craft outside of school, she said.