A young girl dreams of romance against all odds but then she recalculates in Lydia R. Diamond’s beautifully astute dramatization of Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl.
Given an emotionally involving production by the Underground Railroad Theatre in collaboration with artists from the Providence Black Repertory Company, which has been perceptively directed under the sure hand of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Harriet Jacobs continues at the Central Square Theatre through January 31.
The slave narrative published prior to the Civil War in 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent languished in private libraries until Oxford University Press (urged by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) re-issued the story of unfathomable evil and the hopes of a girl on the brink of womanhood as part of a series on black women writers of the 19th century. Then, even more recently, in 2004, historian Jean Fagan Yellin, who had earlier authenticated the memoir as the real deal prompting Gates’s original interest, wrote her monumental biography of the narrative’s author Harriet Jacobs (Harriet Jacobs, A Life).
Companion piece to ’Anne Frank’
Diamond has reached into both sources for a play that is a companion piece to The Diary of Anne Frank and an instant classic in its own right.
Harriet Jacobs’s recollections of life as a slave in Edenton, North Carolina capped by seven years hidden in a crawl space delivers a message of the near miraculous possibility of finding selfhood and maintaining hope while living in the maw of terror.
Everyone involved in the gripping production is on the same page in bringing this uber-powerful, existential adventure from American history to life.
A stage set completely in taupe and black by Susan Zeeman Rogers, scenic and object designer, that borrows its aesthetic from painters William H. Johnson (Going To Church) and Henri Matisse, is at once utilitarian and suggestive. At the rear is a house made of boards that opened up, serves as Harriet’s grandmother’s bakery and, above which, is a tiny garret. The floor of the stage has whirls of lines (reminiscent of Matisse’s book of 100 cut-outs, Jazz) that at one spot become a tree with Spanish moss dripping from its branches.
The ensemble of supporting actors in this all-black cast enters from the same doors as do the audience. They are carrying glass preserve jars lit from within and filled with cotton bolls on their rough bark branches symbolic of the King Cotton economy springing from avaricious plantation owners that kept slavery going in this country long after it was illegal to import Africans as chattel. The white master raping black women that was a significant part of ensuring a new generation of free labor is very much at the heart of the Harriet Jacobs travail.