Syracuse Stage premieres ‘Possessing Harriet’
Syracuse Stage presents 'Possessing Harriet'
Syracuse Stage brings the gripping drama Possessing Harriet to life with the world premiere of award-winning playwright Kyle Bass’s latest play.
Based off of true events, the play tells the story of Harriet Powell (Nicole King), a 24-year-old slave, who escapes from her slave owners after encountering Thomas Leonard (David Morgan Shelley), a free black man working at the Syracuse Hotel. Commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Society, the Syracuse Stage play takes place in Peterboro, NY, where abolitionist Gerrit Smith (Wynn Harmon) has a home that serves as a safe haven for Harriet while she waits to finish her journey to Canada.
Taking place entirely in the attic of Gerrit Smith’s home, the 90-minute play focuses mainly on its female characters. Smith brings his niece, a then 24-year-old Elizabeth Cady (pre-Stanton) (Lucy Lavely), to speak with Powell, in the hopes that her racist ideologies and mindset will be changed. Bass imagines the conversation that may have taken place between these two women.
Though already a staunch supporter of women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady is blindly ignorant to her prejudicial thoughts on race. Cady’s discussion with Powell (who is a quarter black and could easily “pass” for white) begins with a childlike fascination, as if Cady can’t quite comprehend the atrocities that have occurred in Powell’s life.
The embodiment of white feminism, Lavely plays Cady with an (overly) melodramatic fervor and blatant disregard for problems afflicting anyone but herself. She bounds across the stage with extravagant movements, flourishing her ankle-length skirt as if a matador taunting a bull while she passionately proclaims society’s unfair treatment of women. One may be inclined to feel bad for Ms. Cady’s complete ignorance to the racial disputes blowing up around her, but Lavely’s dramatics make it difficult to find any empathy.
Foiling Lavely’s theatrics, King plays Powell with a stoic, quiet strength, making Powell’s internalized hurt and anger all the more heartbreaking. King stands unmoving as Lavely bounds around the stage professing the conundrum she faces as an unmarried woman. King’s stoicism remains as she recounts the horror she faced in the slave trade, her voice devoid of any emotion, as if discussing the weather. When King allows emotion to penetrate Powell’s sober state, it’s as if a dam is breaking, culminating in a full breakdown in the final scene, as Powell is finally faced with the reality of finally escaping to freedom.
Thomas Leonard is, of course, the inciting factor in convincing Harriet to finally escape. As Leonard, Shelley puts on a no-nonsense attitude as he urges Powell to allow herself to feel the fear and then fight through it. Shelley delivers his lines as Leonard with a calculated precision, putting both Cady and Smith in their places when they presume to know the experiences he has had. As Smith, Harmon preaches loudly and forcefully, displaying the passion Smith had as an orator and ardent abolitionist.
While the focus of the play falls mostly on the conversations between the characters, the slanted wooden ceiling and austere minimal furniture that adorn the set (designed by Donald Eastman) only futher enhances the production value. Likewise, the gorgeously subtle lighting design by Stephen Quandt brings a whole new dimension to the production, mimicking the setting sun and allowing shadows to dance across the walls as dusk settles in.
The combination of the near perfect technical aspects and strong character-driven plot make Possessing Harriet an incredibly robust production. Although depicting a historical event, Bass manages to reimagine beyond the history book pages, creating a story that feels as timely as ever nearly two centuries later.
Watch the trailer below: