November 05, 2010

A (slave) girl’s life
by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Rep continues its Chicago connection with a play first presented at the Windy City’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Harriet Jacobs is the dramatization of the life of an extraordinary, though largely unremembered, historical personage. The woman was born a slave, yet became a teacher, an entrepreneur and a writer. In addition, she spent years as an avid and tireless speaker and advocate for improving the lives of runaway slaves and free blacks. Her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, served as the inspiration to playwright Lydia R. Diamond. With the able assistance of the actors and design team, the KC Rep production brings it all together to provide a satisfying evening of theatre.

As the play opens, the title character assumes the narrator role, and goes straight to the heart of the matter when she questions what this show has to offer that hasn’t been hashed and rehashed countless times before. In answering her own question, Harriet tells us that her intent is to provide more than just facts, but also the thoughts and feelings of a person who has actually experienced and endured these things, not just the words of someone writing about them. In this way the play succeeds admirably. Harriet speaks eloquently, often poetically about how it feels for a human being to be chattel. Picking at the scab of America’s guilt along the way, we also receive a few new pieces of seldom-heard information about atrocities imposed by some slave owners. These interjections are narrated by other characters in the play, interspersed with the main line of the narrative.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Grandma and Nambi Kelley as Harriet in Harriet Jacobs

Harriet is a literate chatterbox in an illiterate world. A bored mistress taught her to read as a child, little knowing what a torrent of thoughts and emotions would be unleashed. This capacity makes Harriet stick out like a sore thumb in the eyes of her owners. The master of the plantation desires her and pursues her relentlessly. As a result, his wife envies and despises her. It makes for a difficult environment for anyone to get along, especially a teenage girl powerless to get away. Consequently, Harriet makes a number of interesting choices that are challenging for a modern American to comprehend.

The production benefits from a number of creative notions that make it stand out. First of all, the actors who play white characters are black. Costumed by Jeremy W. Floyd in starkly white suits, dresses, and hats to differentiate them from when the same actors are playing slaves.

The set designer, Collette Pollard, last seen at the Rep with her stunning, exploded apartment design for The Glass Menagerie, has pulled off another coup, this time in the opposite direction. This set is extremely simple, with wooden slats for back wall and floor. This simplicity allows the single set to portray the plantation big house and the grandmother’s shack equally well. Multiple, very tall, narrow windows allow us to peek out at the workers as they toil in the cotton fields. The action behind the windows is choreographed almost lyrically, with workers singing traditional songs and new ones composed by Andrew Pluess.

As the eponymous Harriet, Nambi Kelley is very engaging. Her Grandmother, played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce is totally convincing. She is alternately scolding, mothering, cunning and bawdy. Her performance grounds the play, because much of what we hear is the hopes, dreams, and imaginary conversations in the mind of Harriet. Other noteworthy performances were rendered by David Fonteno as Master Norcom, and Phillip James Brannon as Tom, Harriet’s first love.

Harriet Jacobs is playing through Nov. 21 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Copaken Stage at the H&R Block Building, 13th and Walnut, in the heart of the Power and Light District. For reservations, call the box office 816-235-2700, or online at

Greg Boyle may be contacted at

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