Just days after the United States celebrated its independence on July 4, Forestville, Md.-based Bishop McNamara High School’s Sankofa production of “Harriet and the Underground” took audiences back in time, in order to understand the true meaning of freedom for Black Americans.
Through primarily dance, as well as music and acting, 92 students, in three hours on July 8, not only outlined the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, but also the Black American journey, starting from Africa as kings and queens, to slaves, and ultimately to their search for freedom.
“I believe very much in telling history through movement,” Victor Bah, artistic director of Sankofa and the African Music and Dance program at Macnamara told the AFRO.
As a native of Ghana, Bah named the McNamara performance group Sankofa, which translates to, “go back and fetch it.” The word and symbol associated with it, a bird flying forward with its head turned backwards, teaches people to reclaim the past in order to understand their current state to move forward.
Forward movement has happened in regards to Tubman, as last year it was announced her face would replace the slave-holding, Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill in several years, and because of that, Bah felt it was important for audiences to truly look back and connect with this American heroine.
“After all of this we thought that for the larger community…and African American community…wouldn’t it be nice to learn a lot through movement and music about this woman…which will make them more entertained and make them more connected to this woman?” Bah said.
The show begins with slaves escaping to freedom, and when they are fearful of getting caught, Harriet, who is played simultaneously by both a dancer and a narrator, stops with her gun drawn, rallying her followers to continue the journey.
“All your life you’ve been a slave…and you don’t even know you’re slaves,” said Harriet, who was played by Jordyn Young.
Before audiences get to see if the slaves make it to freedom with Harriet, they must go back to Africa, prior to the middle passage. With live Djembe drummers, many fast-paced African dances, and moving projections, audiences were transported to places like Egypt, current day Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Africa, Senegal and Ghana.
Through movement, audiences received a glimpse of the horrors of the middle passage, staging the performers to lie tightly in small nooks side-by-side, with no space to move.
“We are swallowed by a strange ship, and with it, our sense of dignity,” said one of the narrators.
The production included slaves working, getting lashed and beaten, and even raped.
“You grow up coming through the American school system and of course you hear about Harriet Tubman and it’s all sort of generalized in terms of her escapes through the Underground Railroad and all of the work that she did to make this possible. But I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea frankly, how much of a badass Harriet Tubman was,” John Baltimore, the producer of “Harriet and the Underground,” and a father to one of the performers, told the AFRO.
“In 2017, we take freedom for granted so I never thought about how much of a struggle it was to get people to embrace their freedom and get people to want to take that leap of faith to follow her lead to freedom,” Baltimore said.
With the fear of slave patrols, often called patterrollers, an organized group of White men responsible for disciplining slaves and, particularly, escapees, the stakes were very high for these people who had no idea what freedom looked like, felt or even meant.
“In many instances, she had to overcome the psyche of a people who had been slaves their entire lives and knew of no other way of life. As a result, their fear, torment, concern for family members left behind, and sheer exhaustion from the journey, often led to them wanting to run and go back to their plantations; to which Ms. Tubman’s response was always exact and unambiguous, as she pulled out her pistol and said, “…You’ll be free or die,” Baltimore said.