A Sad Truth—History Comes Alive at Hedgerow Theatre

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

“I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

Sojourner Truth was the name Isabella Baumfree gave herself in 1843 when she embarked on a journey from slavehood to renowned abolitionist.  Richard LaMonte Pierce, Playwright-in-Residence at First World Theatre Ensemble, has dramatized her story and Hedgerow is presenting it from now until February 6th.

SOJOURNER featuring Zuhairah McGill as Sojourner Truth running at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA through February 6.

Sojourner was born in 1797 just 95 miles north of New York City. She was one of ten children and the family was owned by a Colonel Hardenburgh.  The colonel died when Sojourner was 9 years old and she was sold off, along with a flock of sheep, for $100.00. Her family was torn apart and she was treated brutally by her owners.     She would have a total of 4 masters before escaping to freedom in 1826. The kindness and aid of a small group of whites who supported abolition led to her involvement with the movement. She went on to be quite close to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. She even met Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

At the start of the play, it is 1883 and Sojourner is about to speak in New York City.  The 86 year old abolitionist is unwell and close to death (she passed away on November 26, 1883).  The audience serves as a group of reporters interviewing Truth about her life.  First World’s founder and Producing Artistic Director Zuhairah McGill portrays Sojourner with every fiber of her being. It is a story that needs to be heard—we must not forget our history, even the parts that don’t make us proud.

I believe this piece is a re-working of a version Hedgerow presented about 5 or 6 years ago.  I’m not sure if Mr. LaMonte Pierce fleshed the play out to include some additional actors as people who crossed paths with Sojourner, or if director Penny Reed brought this element to the piece.  For the most part, this is effective, and allows Ms. McGill to have someone to bounce off of in some key moments.   The recorded voice-overs of various people were nicely done as well. Soundscape credit goes to Jarious L. Parker, Sr., who has added a great deal of atmosphere to the play with his choices. The lighting design by Carl Smith also supports the piece quite nicely, as do Zoran Kovcic’s set and the costumes by Maxine Johnson and Cathy Miglionico.

Ms. Reed has helped Ms. McGill find many new details and interesting choices in the piece and it is clear this is a labor of love for both. My one concern was Ms. McGill’s diction at times.  When she is speaking as the elderly Sojourner in the dialect of an uneducated black person of the slave era, I was unable to understand a lot of what she said and I missed many details of the story.  I was sitting at the back of the house, so perhaps it was just me…..    

Sojourner’s story needs to continue to be told—it was most gratifying to see elementary and high school age children there to learn about an important part of our country’s past.  I recommend it to all ages—especially as we approach Black History Month. 

by Richard LaMonte Pierce
Directed by Penelope Reed
January 20 – February 6, 2011
Hedgerow Theatre
64 Rose Valley Road
Rose Valley, PA

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