It is rare the show that can educate and inspire, but Agape Theatre Troupe's latest production, Voices of Freedom, does just that.
Neither a conventional straight play nor a musical, Voices of Freedom, which played for only two shows on Saturday, splices together two one-act plays with related themes that organically feed off one another. Weaving together elements of music, poetry and drama into a kind of live, creative mosaic, the show is part gritty history lesson, part performing arts monument to ancestors, and part impromptu church service.
Playwright Carolyn Gage's short Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist serves as the first act, followed by Voices of Freedom, written by Agape founder and artistic director Cathy Rawlings.
The two pieces work in tandem. Tubman's surreal visit to "another dimension of space and time" to be counseled on how not to run away from slavery packs a jarring emotional punch while serving as an introduction to the second act's exploration of the slave experience, particularly that of women.
Rawlings plays a hypothetical therapist with her own experience as a slave in the first act, with Eryn Dailey-Demby portraying Tubman. Rawlings' performance is most interesting when the cracks begin to appear in the veneer of her professional behavior, cracks poked open by Tubman, whose heavy dialect-laden voice and unwavering commitment to freedom at any cost rattle the more practical therapist.
The act highlights a unique disconnect between the two slave women, a schism in the psychological approach to dealing with the emotional effects of slavery. Where Tubman will not tolerate it at all, going so far as to risk her life and sympathize with women who have killed their children rather than see them sold, the slave therapist tries to make the best of her situation.
"Focus on what you can change," is a tag line of the therapist, issuing a modern self-help maxim that sounds patently ridiculous the moment Rawlings utters it. Still, Rawlings' character typifies one particular psychological stance for dealing with oppression — do what it takes to survive — while Dailey-Demby's Tubman holds to the integrity of her African foremothers in a fit of unyielding spiritual poetry that is uplifting and lyrically profound.
The most uplifting moments of the production come even later, however, when a six-person cast joins poet Nikky Finney onstage for a musical-tinged series of short monologues by slave women.
Finney reads a poem whose subject matter sets a particular theme, with each performer's monologue and, frequently, musical selection corresponding to that theme. Director Deb Shoss tapped actress Sylvia Howard's excellent elocution skills to narrate, leading the audience from one aspect of slavery to another, often linking national phenomena with examples from local history, such as the original meaning of the Lexington street names Cheapside and Upper.
It is when these educational aspects marry the dramatic elements that the show has its most impact.
Particularly disturbing was the scene in which a slave, who was a cook for white and black children, explains the way black children were fed mushed cornmeal or beans from a troth, like animals. These are the kind of brutal, difficult-to-watch details of history to which young generations ought to be exposed. I didn't know slave children were fed this way; it was good for me to feel so much shock and dismay.
Of course, music is a hallmark of Agape's origin and modus operandi, and this show is no exception. Both ensemble and solo song selections are woven throughout the show to chilling effect.
When Deirdre Darnell belted out a spine-tingling version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the nearly capacity audience went wild, spewing "amens" and "hallelujahs" before leaping to their feet in an impromptu moment that can only be called an old-fashioned blessing. I got the feeling that if someone had wheeled out a baptistery full of water, people would've jumped in.
I got the sense that Shoss is carefully leading many of Agape's repeat performers toward considering themselves bona fide actresses, an exciting and important artistic leap as the troupe continues to grow and define itself.