When the name Harriet Tubman is mentioned, to many of us— especially those of us here in Baltimore— a particular image comes to mind: a kindly older woman wrapped in her shawl, showing folks the way to freedom on the underground railroad. But the legendary woman of history was so much more than that. And what happens when a time-traveling genius plots to intercept Harriet Tubman in her heyday and load her up with enough guns to incite a revolution that will echo throughout all of time and space? Enter Harry and the Thief, a play by Sigrid Gilmer making its East-Coast debut at Strand Theater under the direction of Susan Stroupe. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with Susan to shed some light on just why this play is so powerful and important to be receiving its East-Coast debut.
Thank you for giving us your time, Susan. If you could refresh the readers on who you are and where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to in the area that would be a great start.
Susan Stroupe: My name is Susan Stroupe and I am a director and theatre artist based in Baltimore. Most recently I was the Co-Director for The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allen Poe, which is now officially produced by Submersive Productions. That was consuming most of my life for the last 18 months, actually almost two years, but now that’s over. I’ve done a lot of other little things in the meantime. I was a director for Parity Festival, I was the Festival Director of Brainstorm5 for Glass Mind Theatre Company, and my directorial debut in Baltimore was actually The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret also with Glass Mind. Now I’m directing for The Strand Theater Company a show called Harry & The Thief, a show by Sigrid Gilmer, which is a comedy about Harriet Tubman.
A comedy about Harriet Tubman. Do tell us more.
Susan: That’s the most succinct way to describe it. It seems to turn people’s heads because they hear the word “comedy” and then they hear “Harriet Tubman” and as they try to put those two things together in their brain, I think most people are going, “…wait a minute, that’s not supposed to go together.” It seems like it should be a bad Seth McFarlane joke, but it’s really not. It’s actually really hard to describe the play. We had a couple of audience members come early to an “invited rehearsal” and they seemed to enjoy it well enough? One of the people in the audience kept saying that they understood exactly what I meant when I said it was hard to describe.
The play is a comedy. And Harriet Tubman is a feature character, so of course we use her as publicity, and she is in the title. She’s the “Harry” of Harry and the Thief, but the play is really about these ten characters who are going through some kind of process of searching for freedom. The absurdity of the situation is what makes it a comedy. It’s not that the joke is on Harriet Tubman, it’s that Harriet Tubman is the agent of a lot of the humor. There are four black female characters in the play who are really the drivers of the narrative and they are the ones who have all the power to begin with, and since two of those characters are slave characters that hierarchy of power comes into play. These characters with power start at the top, they don’t work their way to the top, and that creates humor but that’s not the only basis for humor.
The way Sigrid (playwright Sigrid Gilmer) writes— wait, I need to back up a little bit here.
Yes, why don’t you tell us where the play takes place?
Susan: There’s two time periods. Harriet Tubman time travel and revolution kind of sort of, that’s the best way to describe it. There’s the present where a couple of the characters start out and then the rest of the characters who start out in the past. The premise of the play is that the other title character, the thief whose name is Mimi, is sent back in time by her cousin to give Harriet Tubman a lot of guns so that she can start a revolution. But because it’s a comedy that plan immediately goes wrong. So that plan is never really actualized. It’s even hard to describe because the premise is immediately exploded once she goes back in time.
But there are two different time periods— then and now, like 2016. This play is only a few years old so “the present” will be the current present for a while to come. And the “back in time” period is Civil War era. Part of the plot is that Mimi the thief is intended to go back into the Civil War, but she actually ends up going back further than that. But she still finds Harriet Tubman. So already part of the plot has gone awry because she’s overshot her time travel mark.
Maybe if she’d remembered to take the parking brake off the TARDIS…
Susan: Oh yeah, there’s a TARDIS joke in there. Actually, no there isn’t, you’ll have to make your own TARDIS joke, but there are a bunch of other time travel jokes all throughout the play. There’s a lot of pop cultural references in all of the language— not just the present day language but the past-time-period language as well. The language of the play is all very modern and that’s another part of the comedy. Oh, and not in a way that makes it feel anachronistic but just in a way that drives the humor. It does not irreverently deface history. It’s really a play about taking back control of the narrative for people who have never had control of their own narrative. Mainly for this play it’s the black women who do that.
How did you find this piece?
Susan: So I know Sigrid from several years ago. She’s an LA based playwright. She worked for a time with Cornerstone Theatre Company, which is a big community based theatre company out in LA and I did their summer residency. It’s a month-long process where you are living in a community for three weeks, you make a play with the community, and it’s this crazy big explosion of theatre. She was the playwright on the play we were working on. They adapt a lot of classical texts and she had adapted Candide into this play that was about the community that we were in and we performed it in their community garden. Sigrid is amazing. She’s just this awesome female playwright who is just so cool. A couple of years ago I was trying to build my new play database, just for myself as I was starting to direct more, and so I emailed her asking if she had any plays that she wanted to send me. She sent Harry & The Thief, and I read it and just got so excited. I love Harriet Tubman. So when I read it, I said, “This is the play about Harriet Tubman that I’ve always wanted!”
The language of the play is very cinematic. She puts a lot of movie language into it. That was something else that I really loved about the play. It felt kind of like it could be a Harriet Tubman movie but in the way that Harriet Tubman’s story should be told. The more I learned about her the more I realized she’s really an action hero. I think we see her as this sweet old person, occasionally with a gun.
I know I picture the image of the older woman with the shawl over her head from the Black History Month illustration books from my public school days.
Susan: So you’re thinking underground railroad, cloak of darkness, old woman with a shawl over her head. And in a lot of depictions she’s sitting and she’s very inert. She looks slightly worn and weathered, like a kindly old grandma who might help you escape. But she was really amazing and so much more than those depictions. There was actually a Drunk History episode that featured her not too long ago that really portrayed Harriet Tubman for the awesome action-hero type person she was. She was a genius. She was this very brilliant strategist and all of her life was very rebellious. Even when she was a slave and especially when she was a child, she had a rebel streak in her. She’s from Maryland, she grew up on the Eastern Shore, and I know I’m getting into the Harriet Tubman history lesson here, but I think she kind of gets glossed over during Black History Month.
I think it’s really unfortunate, especially for children in Maryland, to not really know all there is to know about her. She is from here and you can go to these places where she lived and existed. I know a lot of the focus falls on Frederick Douglas, and that’s another issue— the gender issue because he was doing all this writing and publishing, and that is in no way to diminish his legacy he was one of the greatest writers of his time. And he actually said this about her, but Harriet was the one “doing all of the work.” She was living out what all of the abolitionists were writing about. She was doing it. She never got caught. She came back to Maryland almost 20 times— Maryland was a slave state even though it did have a lot of free black people— and was never caught. I think her growing up in Maryland where the lines of slavery and freedom were very, very vague— as opposed to the deep south or far north where they were very clearly defined— really helped her take charge of her path of action, of her destiny.
You know, as a 20-year-old, she negotiated not with her own master but with the guy she had been hired out to by her master that if he would protect her, she would manage her own work schedule and hire herself out. And she bargained that if she could keep a little of that money she would ensure that this guy she’d been hired out to got the bulk of the money and not her original master, she was clever. She was amazing. So the job she created for herself out of that was to go work in the woods. It gave her the opportunity to become really strong and to learn the woods. It was all a part of her big strategy. And by that time she’d already received the head injury that she said had given her visions from God. It’s just astonishing that she never got caught, she was never even really close to getting caught. The bounty on her was $40,000 at one point. She helped hundreds of people get to freedom and then during the Civil War she was hired by the Union government to be a spy. They would send her to infiltrate the plantations in the south, mostly in South Carolina, to uncover the routes that the Union Army could then take down along the rivers to seize and overtake those plantations.
How did you and Harry and the Thief end up at Strand Theater Company?
Susan: Yeah, sorry, didn’t mean to go full-blown history lesson on Harriet Tubman there. That’s the really long tangent of how much I love Harriet Tubman. But anyway, I’d read the play, was really excited about it, and it was just sitting in my brain as something I wanted to do. Elena Kostakis, managing director of Strand, had contacted me about directing for them this year. And she asked me if I’d had anything I’d been thinking about that was written by a woman. This was the perfect play for it! It’s a story written by a black woman, about black women, with a historical thread of a woman from Maryland. It’s an amazing play. It’s a really outrageous, deep, convoluted play that has really taken us the whole rehearsal time to work our way through all the various levels.
What has the rehearsal process for this play been like in comparison to the project you have just lived with for the past two years?
Susan: It was actually a little bit of an adjustment for me to come off of an eight-month original rehearsal process which was mainly devising, and come back into this process of rehearsing with an actual play. It was helpful to have a script; it was actually nice to go back to having a script. In some ways, at least in the beginning, I still treated it like an ensemble process. When I work with actors I don’t like to have all the answers. They’re the ones who have to play the characters so I like for both of us to be discovering as we go rather than me telling them what they character is going to be like. I like for them to make choices that help them discover who this character is. I have ideas going in but I don’t want to tell them all the ideas, I want to see what they discover. Somewhere along the line all those ideas meet and then I go in and refine those ideas to help them get the best product out of the process.
In some ways that part of the process was the same in letting the actors have a lot of creative freedom in discovering who these characters are and letting them become a part of themselves. But it was definitely an adjustment to go back to “doing a play” as opposed to building an original concept where you’re starting from the ground and installing to site-specific work and creating everything from the dialogue to the movement and everything in-between all along the way.
Speaking of site-specific, where is this play being performed?
Susan: We’re performing at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Acme Corporation actually performs their shows there. They have this really interesting space. It’s not the sanctuary space, it’s an upstairs space that was built to be a Sunday School— amphitheater is really the only way to describe it. So it’s this two story amphitheater upstairs and it’s a really cool space because it’s round. The acoustics in there are awesome. The one thing that has been a real challenge for us going into production was having wanted to open Easter weekend, but since it was Easter weekend and we are playing in a church…that didn’t happen. So the interesting thing that’s happening now is that we’ve completed our whole tech week. But we’re not opening until next week. I’m curious to see how that effects the process. We’ve got a little spring break thrown in there for the actors but I think we’re in a really good place to open.
What Design Team are you working with for this production?
Susan: The Design Team is also mostly women. Mika Eubanks, who is a costume designer around town, actually just got accepted into Yale. She’s wonderful, and she was a MICA student, but she will be leaving us for Yale, and while we’re very happy for her we’re sad to see her go. We also have Adrienne Gieszl who is our Lighting Designer. She hasn’t done anything in a while so she was really excited to come back onto the scene and get start doing some Lighting Design again. We also have Kate Smith-Morse who works all around Baltimore and she’s doing our Set Design. Kate is great for a lot of things. One of the things she’s really good at, and this is good for Baltimore theatres in general, but she’s really good at doing things on a tight budget. The style of the show itself is meant to be “on-the-cheap” so it’s meant to feel very low-budget. So in processing this Kate immediately came to mind, someone who has a lot of creative ideas that can make it look low budget intentionally as opposed to just being low-budget.
You had mentioned ten characters; does that mean ten actors? And I know you have at least one Mesmerite returning to your cast.
Susan: Yes it does mean ten actors. We call them “Revelators.” I have one Revelator in the cast, Alexander Scally, and he’s wonderful, he’s doing a wonderful job. He plays an overseer character and it’s hard to describe his character because it’s not what you expect. All of the characters start out with a stereotypical bent on them, which is very, very quickly broken. I think that’s also part of the comedy. Sigrid doesn’t waste any time with the stereotypes. She sets it up and knocks it right down. The result of the stereotype being broken is really the journey of the play.
We also have Monique Ingram, who is a local actor, she was recently in Ruined at Everyman and she also just got accepted into Yale. She plays Harriet Tubman and she’s really wonderful. Aladrian Wetzel, she’s a local actor who has worked with Cohesion Theatre Company and others, she plays Mimi the thief. And we have Mike Smith, he’s a local comedian and actor and he plays the cousin of Mimi. He’s this mad scientist who creates the time travel device. Frank Mancino plays Orry Main, that’s a nod to the North and South character, and he’s the plantation owner. What happens to him is one of the most outrageous things in the play.
Let’s see who else do I have? Madison Sowell, who is a Towson grad, plays the “right-hand-man” to the plantation owner, again starts out as a stereotype but quickly gets broken. Then there’s Trustina Fafa Sabah who is another local actor who works with Annex and Glass Mind, most recently I want to say she was the Sphere character in Annex’s Flatland. She plays a cook character who is both very outrageous and perhaps deadly. We’re just not sure. Zipporah Brown, she’s a newer actor in Baltimore, she has worked with Centerstage in their YPF and Teaching program. She plays a field-hand/slave character who has had a relationship forced upon her by Alex’s character. And again, I know listening to all this it sounds like it’s going to be terrible and tragic and traumatic, and it is and should be, but there’s also so much humor in it because of the insanity of the circumstances. Who else do I have? Javier Ogando, who plays a character who is the twin of Zipporah’s character. And this character has ideas about men and women and who should be in charge. How many characters is that? We’re up to eight right? We’ve got Samy El-Noury who is playing this God-like character that presides over the whole thing. In our version, this presence is the Director who is overseeing the movie that is a play that is a movie about Harriet Tubman.
I think that’s all of them. They’re all a really wonderful cast and they’re taking on these characters and making them very human and very relatable. The script does that, the script kind of forces you to make every single one of the characters have the possibility for redemption. This is strange for some of the characters who you don’t want to see redeemed. It’s also strange for characters that you don’t think should have to be redeemed in this search for freedom.
You had wanted to touch a bit more on the humor of the play?
Susan: Oh yeah! These characters are in these traumatic situations. We are starting out with what should be a very dark and brutal story, like most of the slave films that we get. Think 12 Years a Slave, Roots, the show Underground, all of those things are dark and brutal and heavy. Those are tragic-feeling and despair-loaded and for a good reason. They should be and we should get the reality of the situation so that we can feel the weight of what happened to the people that it happened to. However, that doesn’t have to be the whole story. What Sigrid is suggesting with this play is that while those types of stories need to exist and are very important, that can’t be the whole story. You have to be able to find humor because humor is human. If we keep relegating— especially with slave characters— these people to only misery and despair, then we dehumanize them in that way as well. The human experience, regardless of what your situation is, is a full experience. Even though there was a lot of despair in their lives and we can’t ever forget that, it doesn’t mean that they also didn’t fall in love or that they didn’t have joy and times of laughter and celebration. The imagery that she brings to mind is the beating down of black people. So another way she addresses that here is to say, “What if we handed the reigns of the narrative over to the black women and see what happens?” And suddenly this becomes a comedy.
What about this play, in addition to being a female director and your love for Harriet Tubman, is speaking to you about this play and makes it so important that you want to put it out there?
Susan: I think it’s an important piece for right now for Baltimore. In general, I think this idea of who controls the narrative or who is telling the story of the life of racism in American is a really important concept. I was in many ways very hesitant about suggesting that I as a white person direct this production. Sigrid was actually on the east coast this past summer, researching a new play, and we had a whole afternoon of just wandering through Baltimore together. We did a lot of talking about it and a lot of talking about what her intentions of the play were. I’m not in any way trying to say that I have permission to direct this play, but I think talking with her helped ease some of my hesitancy. I think it’s important for white theater makers to make it a point to consistently— and not just every once in a while or in February— to produce and support and to invite, no that’s not the right word, to ask black people or people of other races how they want us to be involved in their theatre making.
It’s this idea that everybody gets a place at the table, but is there somebody still inviting people to the table? Is the inviting still being controlled by white people? I’m not saying that I have all the answers here because I absolutely do not, but I think that especially in Baltimore it’s really important to bring these notions to the table. Baltimore is still a very largely segregated theatre community. Theatre shouldn’t be segregated. It’s an art form. It should be something for everybody to partake in and invited to partake in and to have agency in how it’s made and how it’s done. I’m trying to make that a part of my own artistic life with all of the complications that it comes with.
What has been the most challenging element of taking on this project?
Susan: I think a lot of what I just talked about. Trying to understand where my role is in this story especially in regard to helping the actors. Where is my place in helping them to tell the story? As a director I’m of course in charge of the overall vision of the play. That doesn’t change when I’m a white person directing black actors. I still have to be the guiding force of all that. But it’s about figuring out where is my place of being an authority figure without being the authority figure. I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges. All of the actors have been really wonderful. All of them came to the table in a true spirit of really wanting to connect with one another. And they really have. As far as I can tell, from a director’s perspective looking at my ensemble, they all appear to be working quite well together.
What has taking on this project taught you about yourself?
Susan: Oh gosh. Taught me about me? I don’t think I know the answer to that yet, I might need a little distance between myself and the project to elapse before I can answer it. Not just because of the subject matter, but because this is jumping back into a play for me. I don’t think I realized how changed I had become after going through that long devising and constructing process. It started to alter my own identity as a theater maker and I’m not sure that I have a really good grasp on just how that has impacted me fully just yet. So I think I’m going to leave it at that. But continuing to work with Submersive Productions, and continuing to work on plays outside of that, has put me in the mind to find the balance in my own artistic creative life. What’s the difference when I’m working with Submersive on a devised piece versus when I’m working on a play, are there differences, what are they, and how do they work together to create one artistically producing me?
What is it you are hoping people will take away from seeing this production?
Susan: I really hope that there is imagery that they were not expecting to walk away with. I hope they walk away with a different way of looking at the narrative of black history. That is a very high expectation so I don’t know if it will happen. But I hope there will be some moments that people will have wide eyes and ask “What is happening right now?” There are a lot of moments like that that happened for us throughout the process. There were moments like that that would happen while the actors were blocking things out and we would just fall out laughing because it was so outrageous. A lot of that stuff has been kept in because it was so funny in a very shocking way. And again, not like Seth McFarlane shocking, but in a way that just makes you go “wait. What? People don’t do that!” It’s not in a way that’s intended to offend people but in a way that is more of an opening up of possibilities and the joy that comes from those opened up possibilities.
Why should people come and see Harry and The Thief?
Susan: As always, I like to say that you have to come see the actors. They’re just wonderful. I can’t say that enough. I say that about all of the shows that I work on, but they have worked so hard. They have surprised me so much in a really wonderful way with what they have come up with, the commitment they have made to each other, and the telling of this story. The play is phenomenal. People need to come see this play that Sigrid has written.
Harry and the Thief plays through April 10, 2016 at Strand Theater Company currently in residence at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church— 1900 St. Paul Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.