Enchanted Circle Theater, the Holyoke-based educational theater company, performed its latest play recently in the Roxbury section of Boston. “It was a love fest,” reports Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the troupe’s artistic director. The mostly African-American audience of young people and adults stayed for two hours after the performance, talking with the actors. “That really says something about the sense of community that happens with this story.”
The story is that of Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist and women’s-rights activist. Born a slave, she escaped to freedom, recreated (and renamed) herself, and became an influential champion of justice and human dignity. Her brief sojourn in Western Massachusetts in the 1840s is commemorated by a statue in Florence, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian workers’ community.
Sojourner’s Truth, which will be performed in Holyoke this weekend, tells her story from the point of view of a contemporary African-American teenager, played by Stephanie Marryshow. The one-hour play was created primarily as an educational piece for schools, but the upcoming performances, presented by MIFA, the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, include two for the general public.
The script, drawn from primary source documents, sheds light on the little-known history of slavery in the North—Truth was born and raised in New York State, where slaveholding wasn’t officially abolished until 1827—and fleshes out an extraordinary personal history of willpower, audacity and, as Hellweg puts it, “indomitable spirit.” Trained to subservience, she asserted her rights and humanity in dangerous circumstances. A lifelong illiterate, she became one of the era’s most powerful public orators. The show’s subtitle is a typically emphatic declaration of Truth’s: “I will shake every place I go to.”
Boston-based actor Ramona Lisa Alexander portrays Truth from girlhood to middle age, and Melissa Penley plays several white women who befriended her, including the two who ghost-wrote her pair of autobiographies. The books are infused with the cultural biases of these middle-class ladies, as well as with Truth’s own knack for self-promotion, and the play touches on questions of history-as-viewpoint, including an amusingly ironic scene that interlaces contradictory versions of Truth’s meeting with President Lincoln.
Marryshow acts as narrator, weaving her own experiences and observations into the story. “She’s connecting us and bringing us along with her,” Hellweg explains. “She connects the dots, seeing how Sojourner’s life and struggles are so relevant today. It’s a different story today, but the heart is the same, unfortunately.” Marryshow also provides a musical undercurrent that incorporates snatches of spirituals and two original songs, including one, “She Pleadeth for Her People,” based on Truth’s own words.
Hellweg hopes the production will have the same effect in the Valley, and particularly the Holyoke community, as it did in Roxbury. Through Truth’s story, she says, “our lives are touched, and we realize we have so much to give and learn and experience together. What the human spirit can accomplish, when we dig down deep and get past what we can’t get past, is quite stunning.”
Sojourner’s Truth: Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 5, 2 p.m., $16-20, Sears Auditorium, Holyoke High School, 500 Beech St., Holyoke, (413) 540-0200, http://www.mifafestival.org.