Field trips aren’t usually part of the preparation for student actors in SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts Department.
Yet the four students taking the stage in the upcoming campus production of “Possessing Harriet” said they found inspiration when they traveled to the historic underground railroad site at the estate of abolitionist Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, N.Y., that helped them bring their characters to life.
The play, which was commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Association and debuted on Syracuse Stage in 2018, tells the true story of a slave, Harriet Powell, who escaped from a Syracuse hotel in 1839 with the aid of Thomas Leonard, a free Black man, and found refuge on the Smith estate in Madison County. There, she met Smith and his cousin, Elizabeth Cady, later known by her married name, Stanton, who would go on to become a leading figure in the women’s rights movement.
“Possessing Harriet,” which opens in the Dowd Fine Arts Center Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 24, explores themes of slavery, racism and freedom while also delving into the misconceptions Black and white people had about each other during this era.
By visiting the Smith estate, the actors were able to see one of its few remaining structures from the 1830s, a barn where slaves had passed through on their journey to freedom.
“I got emotional because knowing that we could tell this story to the community and to our college really hit me for some reason,” said Nora Greenberg, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., who plays Elizabeth Cady. “In that spot our tour guide said, ‘Harriet 100 percent walked right there.’ It was so incredible.”
“I, as a person, I’ve never held onto history. I’m more of a math and science brain type of gal,” said Tatiana Padro, a sophomore from Bay Shore, N.Y. who plays Harriet Powell. “But seeing something firsthand and knowing that slaves walked through that building in order to be free, and had to quickly come in and change clothes, have a meal and up and leave again. It’s mind-boggling.”
Powell, who was sold at auction in New Orleans at age 14, had come to Syracuse as servant to a wealthy couple visiting from Mississippi. Cady, who briefly met Powell at the Smith estate, later wrote about that experience in her autobiography.
Playwright Kyle Bass, an assistant professor of theatre at Colgate University, met with SUNY Cortland’s student actors to talk about the characters and his historical research. Bass urged them to not worry so much about depicting these characters exactly as they were, but to find the truth in the emotions and concepts they grapple with throughout the play.
“Getting to go to Peterboro and getting to talk to Kyle helped immensely with character development,” said Dominic Green, a junior from Queens, N.Y., who plays Thomas Leonard. “Touching the stables, we felt the energy. When we were able to ask Kyle questions, that helped so much. I’m grateful for the opportunity because I don’t think we’d be able to give the same show as we’re giving now had I not had those pieces.”
“The fact we got the opportunity to talk to the playwright was insane,” Greenberg said. “I hope we get that opportunity again. You can’t talk to Chekov. It was really amazing and I feel like we all learned a lot about the show and about our characters talking to the playwright himself.”
With just four actors in the cast, “Possessing Harriet” will use an extended stage that brings the play closer to the audience. This intimate setting has caused the actors to lean on director Rodney Hudson and the diction and elocution they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it on stage in a different way than in, for example, musicals with a large ensemble cast.
“Our director has told us it’s OK to give some lines to the audience instead of looking to our fellow actors all the time,” Padro said. “This stage especially, if you’re looking to your fellow actor and they’re upstage, it’s easy for your face to not be seen by any person in audience. If we’re constantly looking at each other, no one is going to see what our facial expressions are or what we’re feeling in that moment.”
The connection with the audience is crucial as the actors convey complicated emotions about their reckonings with slavery and its moral consequences.
“There’s more than just the four of us,” said Thomas Curty, a first-year student from Staten Island, N.Y. who plays Gerrit Smith. “There’s a whole world beyond that door. We can’t go out there because we have to stay in and protect Harriet, but we understand each individual character and we understand who they were. We may not agree with it, but we understand why they’re doing it.”
“Possessing Harriet” will be performed in the Dowd Fine Arts Center Theatre on:
- Thursday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
- Friday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
- Saturday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
- Sunday, Feb. 27 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for faculty/staff and senior citizens and $10 for SUNY Cortland students and children. Tickets may be purchased online or at the Dowd Fine Arts Center Box Office on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon, Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. or Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Audience members are required to wear face coverings at all times while inside Dowd Fine Arts Center. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination, with a valid student ID or driver’s license, or proof of a recent negative PCR test are also required.
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