World Premiere
Playwright Kyle Bass was commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Association to write a play about the life of Harriet Powell who came to Syracuse with the Mississippi family that owned her. | Provided Photo

World Premiere

Historical play ‘Possessing Harriet’ to debut at Syracuse Stage

Freedom has a cost that the heart pays.

This is the underlying message of the new play “Possessing Harriet,” written by Kyle Bass and directed by Tazewell Thompson.

Based on the story of Harriet Powell – a young, mixed-race, enslaved woman who slips away from her southerner owner while staying in Syracuse – the play makes its world premiere Oct. 17 at Syracuse Stage in the very same city Powell made her escape.

“Possessing Harriet” is set in 1839 and was commissioned by The Onondaga Historical Association. It runs 90 minutes and tells a story of freedom, the underground railroad and Syracuse’s part in American slavery and its abolition.

Gregg Tripoli, executive director of the historical association, said he believes the play will attract a large and diverse audience.

“It’s a story about our underground railroad history, women’s rights history and speaks to who we are as a community,” he said. “It speaks to issues we are still dealing with today like racism and social justice.”

With the aid of a mysterious free black man named Thomas Leonard, Powell finds temporary safe harbor
in an attic room at the home of impassioned abolitionist Gerrit Smith. With the slave catchers in pursuit, Powell spends the hours before her dangerous departure to Canada in the company of Smith’s young cousin, Elizabeth Cady, an outspoken advocate for women’s equality. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would later become
known to the world as the primary writer of the Declaration of Sentiments, a key document in the history of women’s rights.

Confronted with new and difficult ideas about race, identity and equality, Powell is forced to the precipice of radical self-re-imagination and a reckoning with the heartrending cost of freedom.

“The stories that we have in our history are inherently dramatic, cinematic really, so we thought a play would be a great way to bring that out and attract a larger local audience,” Tripoli said.

Bass, who wrote “Possessing Harriet,” also teaches playwriting in Syracuse University’s Department of Drama and theater courses in the Department of African-American Studies.

“I hope the audience connects to the play,” Bass said. “I hope that people connect with the human desire.”

Though 1839 was quite a long time ago, such stories are still relevant today as questions of identity, race and gender are still hotly debated.

Bass enjoyed being create with the meeting between Powell and Cady Stanton. His interest in the history of slavery and its connection to his own family also compelled him to write the play.

Bass began working on the play about five years ago. The play has been through many workshops and readings and has been put aside and revived many times. The play was even recently workshopped in New York City. Immediately after the session, Bass went back to his room and made some revisions.

“Everyone has been telling me for six weeks that the script is done,” Bass said with a laugh. “But only the playwright gets to say when it’s complete.”

 

— Preview by Rachel Burt, Special to The Stand