Life of Harriet Tubman, woman who freed slaves, explored in gritty Winnipeg play

The Manitoba Theatre for Young People (MTYP) is putting on a timely play this February as part of Black History Month that revisits the "true grit" of one black woman who helped free slaves in the 1800s.

Manitoba Theatre for Young People show delves into 'true grit and grime' this Black History Month

Cherissa Richards, director of the The Power of Harriet T at the MTYP, shown acting in the play over a decade ago. (Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

The Manitoba Theatre for Young People (MTYP) is putting on a timely play this February as part of Black History Month that revisits the "true grit" of one black woman who helped free slaves in the 1800s.

The Power of Harriet T explores the life of Harriet Tubman, an "unlikely hero" who escaped and later helped dozens flee from the U.S. slave trade into Canada.

"[She created] this safe haven along this journey that was fraught with peril and danger at every turn," Cherissa Richards, director of the MTYP, said. "She kind of beat all the odds and really created this path of freedom for a new life for people who never would've had it."

What allowed her to carry out the underground movement at the time, when women everywhere still had far fewer rights than men, was that Tubman had a steely resolve and singular vision driving her forward along the way, Richards said.

"She was a black woman under five feet tall, she had very little education — she just had a strength of character that was unlike anybody," Richards said.

"She had this desire to be free and to help others be free. She was really ahead of her time…. She decided to fight and that this was not for her or for anybody else. It's just something that was born within her."
The Power of Harriet T runs from Feb. 7 to Feb. 14. (Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

Another motivating factor, Richards says, were her own experiences being born into slavery.

"She was beaten constantly," Richards said, adding Tubman was once hit in the head with a lead weight while trying to free another slave. The injury caused her to start having spiritual visions, Richards said.

"In today's day and age [they'd] probably be more like seizures, but in those spells, she says, she would get visions from God … giving her messages, showing her the path to take these slaves to freedom," Richards said.

"She realized this was her calling and she needed to do it."

Richards is in the director seat now, but it isn't the first time she's been involved with the show. She landed an acting gig in the same play fresh out of theatre school more than a decade ago.

"It feels like a real full-circle moment. It's the first show I acted in and it's now the first show I'm directing in, and back in my hometown, which I've been away from for 15 years."

Working with the artistic director and playwright, Richards has helped recreate and modernize the story.

"It really digs deep into Harriet's issues and pulls no punches and shows us the true grit and grime of the world that Harriet lived in," Richards said. "The violence is really present. I think that it's a less romantic view of the story."

Her favourite part about the play, Richards says, is that it provides another opportunity to re-tell important, challenging stories from the past and to re-evaluate some of the present-day issues of race facing blacks in North America.

"We need to see our heroes being portrayed. We need to see ourselves represented on stage to know that this is something that we can do and to be proud of our heritage."

The Power of Harriet T opens on Feb. 3 for school audiences and Feb. 5 to the public. It runs until Feb. 14. at MTYP.