“Oh Freedom! The Story of the Underground Railroad,” fresh off a successful preview at the Juneteenth celebration, is coming to Warren Arts this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Show times are 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, June 25-26, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 27. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by visiting warrenartstn.com. Run time is about one hour. Warren Arts is located in Smartt on Manchester Highway near the Citizens Tri-County Bank branch.
“Oh Freedom!” is a play with music, and it concerns the mix of people of different geographies, races, and genders who came together to resist slavery by helping escaped slaves make their way to free territory in the years before the Civil War.
Abolitionists and Underground Railroad heroines and heroes Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Rankin, “Peg Leg” Joe, Henry “Box” Brown, William Still, Olaudah Equiano, Jonathan Walker, Samuel Smith, and William Lloyd Garrison are personified in this performance.
The music, sung a cappella by the cast of 20, drives the show. Included in the performance are the spirituals “Oh, Freedom,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Deep River,” “Go Down, Moses,” Wade in the Water,” and “Steal Away.”
Director Sheri Denning says, “This play is full of vignettes of people who overcame all odds to be free.”
One such vignette focuses on Henry “Box” Brown. Denning says of Brown, “He shipped himself from Virginia to Pennsylvania. It took 27 hours, but he made it to freedom by putting himself in a box and getting nailed shut and getting sent through the postal service.” Charlie Boyd plays Brown.
“Oh Freedom!,” with its mix of music, history, drama, and a bit of humor, paints an entertaining, informative, and compelling portrait of the Underground Railroad and the struggle for freedom. “It’s such a powerful story,” Denning says. “As many times as I’ve seen it, it still makes me cry.”
The play is a joint venture between Warren Arts and the local Young Men United organization. A great many of the cast members were recruited by Young Men United board member Rita Ramsey. Furthermore, most of the cast members had not acted before in their life.
Says Denning, “There are so many people who’ve never done it and didn’t think they could do it, and to watch them grow and develop into their characters has been very, very fulfilling.”
Meah Sewell, 15, plays a young slave woman. “She’s running away from her plantation, and I think the main reason she’s running away is because she doesn’t want her baby to be sold away. So she’s risking her life for her child,” Sewell says.
Sewell’s mother Dana Sexton, who Denning says “sings like a bird,” admits she had some reticence in jumping onboard the production. “I kind of wanted to, but I’m very shy,” she admits. Sexton serves as one of the four narrators, along with Jennifer Swims, Rebecca Roberts, and Robert Elam.
Sexton’s favorite part of the show is when Harriet Tubman crosses over to freedom in Pennsylvania, but then comes back to help other slaves make it to freedom. “You think about someone escaping and then risking their life so many times to go back and to get other people to freedom. That’s my favorite part.”
Regina Pullin, who portrays Harriet Tubman, says, “This is my first play here as well.” Pullin, freshly retired from a 21-year career in the Air Force and recently recovered from a near-deadly bout with COVID-19, says she was expecting a small role.
“I just wanted to get my feet wet.” She was surprised when she won the part of Tubman, whose story has instilled in her a deep gratitude. “I can barely act it and get through it. And imagine her walking back and forth and back and forth to go save people.”
While in the Air Force, Pullin served for several years as security for Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. While in that capacity, she had interactions with United States presidents, among them President Bill Clinton. “He was just a really cool dude,” Pullin says of President Clinton. “He gave me an umbrella one time because it was raining.”
Pullin and Sewell say cast members gained confidence from their performance at the Juneteenth celebration. Says Pullin, “We drew a lot of energy from the crowd.” She adds, “They were hanging on our every word, they loved it, they laughed.” Sewell states that although the performance took place outside in hot weather, “When I saw the amount of people that came and sat and watched and how people were so attentive, it was like, ‘Whoa, people actually want to come see this.’”
Sewell believes patrons will gain understanding and enlightenment from the show. “I feel like what we know about slavery is very little, and from this I feel like you’re going to learn a lot more about people who helped, more about how it started … and untold stories too.”
Cast members include Dana Sexton, Robert Elam, Jennifer Swims, Rebecca Roberts, Regina Pullin, Kenneth Johnson, Carol-Lee Mayberry, Rita Ramsey, Annette King, Meah Sewell, Chad McGee, Nathaniel McCuller, Ryan Sexton, Charlie Boyd, Nancy Wilkerson, James Thomas, Angie Moser, Krista Fleming, Darlene Coonrod, and Sheila Davis.
Direction is by Sheri Denning and Rita Ramsey.
Crew members include Marc Pyburn, Sara Nuckols, Kathy Elam, Gregg Garrison, Tara Austin, Rachel McGee, Lucy McGee, Brandy Moore, Julie Cantrell, Donna Eschenbacher, Carrie Hale, and Melissa Pyburn.