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In Slave’s Escape

Fills Franklin Stage

Final Performances This Weekend • Check
A young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the future suffragette, has a propitious meeting with Harriet Powell, who recently escaped from bondage through a chance meeting at the Syracuse Hotel. (FSC photo)

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

FRANKLIN – For “Possessing Harriet” director Leslie Nobel, it was about helping people witness history.

“In her diary, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote about meeting Harriet Powell and that the conversation affected her deeply,” Nobel said. “The playwright, Kyle Bass, took dramatic license to imagine that conversation.”

“Possessing Harriet,” which opened to a packed house Thursday, July 11, at the Franklin Stage Company, tells the true story of Harriet Powell, an escaped slave who, while staying with abolitionist Gerrit Smith, meets and speaks with his young cousin, Elizabeth Cady, in the hours before Harriett leaves for Canada.

The play, which Bass had work-shopped at Syracuse University, where he is the director of the drama department, had its world premiere last October with the Syracuse Stage company, where he is the associate artistic director.

“I was able to watch this develop from a one-act play to full-length,” she said. “Though this is a period piece, it’s not a museum piece.”

When Pat Buckley took over the Franklin Stage in 2017, she spent two years producing from a “stash of plays” the company had wanted to perform.

“This year, we read a lot of new plays, and this one really stood out,” she said. “It’s breathtakingly historical, but also modern in the conversation about race, gender, equality and identity.”

All of the characters in the show are real people, including Thomas Leonard, a free man working at the Syracuse Hotel, the Underground Railroad stop where Harriett meets with Gerrit.

“Not a lot was known about him, so Kyle gave him his great-grandfather Joliver Holmes’ story,” said Nobel. “He was a slave in Virginia and escaped to Delhi, then fought in the 26th Regiment in the Civil War. He’s buried in Delhi; you can visit his grave.”

The show is also part of the Franklin Stage Company’s commitment to make its range of shows more inclusive. “While you can cast people of color in classical shows, we wanted to move towards bringing in women’s voices and people of color,” said Buckley.

Bass was able to help cast the show; Gary Kayi-Fletcher, who plays Thomas Leonard, had auditioned for the show in the initial Syracuse run, and Erin Christine Walsh, who plays Elizabeth Cady, had been one of Nobel’s acting students at Syracuse University.

“It was very helpful to have those names,” she said. “And because we’re a union stage, all of them are professional actors.”

And as they were finalizing the show, they had another chance to fully immerse themselves in the period when Harriet and Elizabeth would have had their conversation.

“At the Stagecoach Run, there was an photographer, Melissa Perkins, who uses a tin-type camera,” said Buckley. “We got one done of the cast in their costumes, just like they would have had in 1839.”

This is the second time the show has been performed and into the second week of its three-week run, many of the performances have been sold out.

They’ve also continued their “Talk-Back” program, where the audience is invited to talk with the actors and director after the play. “If the play is good, the audience will see their lives reflected in it and they want to talk about that,” said Buckley.

Bass will be on hand for the final performance on Sunday, July 28 and will be participating in the talk-back.

“There’s a lot to talk about,” said Buckley. “I think that theater is a safe space, because you’re not getting into it with family, you can sit in the dark and reflect.”



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