It’s the story of Harriet Tubman and how members of the Quaker faith enabled her to carry slaves to freedom under the cloak of darkness. The “Freedom Train” is a musical adaptation of a story of courage that will stage here in Elizabeth City Friday, 7 p.m.
“It was created by a company in New York called Theatre Works,” explains Hugh Copeland, creative director and founder of Hurrah! Players, the Norfolk-based group that will bring the show to Arts of the Albemarle’s Maguire Theatre this week.
Copeland, who is a native of Perquimans County and comes from a Quaker family, says the play “Freedom Train” has been produced by Theatre Works since 1974. It was only two years ago that the company began releasing the rights to other companies. Hurrah!, says Copeland, is only one of several in the country producing this historical drama.
“One of the reasons I thought it was very meaningful was that some of the first Quakers were right there in Perquimans County,” says Copeland.
Across from the house where Copeland grew up in the Belvedere Township of Perquimans County, there is an old Quaker house with double walls, he says. That house, local lore has it, was used as a station in the Underground Railroad.
The region as a whole was a part of the Underground Railroad. And although Harriet Tubman did not play a direct role throughout the Albemarle region’s participation in the Railroad, her second husband, Nelson Davis, was a slave owned by the Elizabeth City Charles family.
For her part, Harriet Tubman was born a slave, but when she was 25 she escaped from a Maryland plantation, leaving her family behind. On the run and being chased by slave catchers, she followed an escape route laid out by the Quakers; secret hiding places in churches, barns, cellars and homes.
Tubman’s use of the Underground Railroad inspired her to become one of its most famous and prolific “conductors.”
“Freedom Train” tells Tubman’s story in a series of scenes that use dance, dialogue, and music of the period. Songs include “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Steal Away,” “Wade in the Water,” “Good News,” “The Chariot’s A-comin’,” and many others still sung today.
“People know of Harriet Tubman but I don’t think people understand that she herself brought over 300 slaves to freedom and she never lost one,” says Copeland.
Local historian and Underground Railroad expert Wanda McLean says Tubman was responsible for more than 300 lives being brought out of bondage, but it’s more likely that she was directly involved in the escape of only 60 to 70 people. The larger number, says McLean, comes by way of Tubman’s participation in training the so-called “conductors” who would help slaves escape bondage. At the height of her efforts she would have $20,000
reward for her capture placed on her.
Whatever the case, Tubman’s story has inspired far more people and continues to do so.
Copeland says Hurrah! just closed “Freedom Train” in Norfolk after performing before sell-out crowds. He anticipates that the response to “Freedom Train” here in Elizabeth City will be just as robust.
The production tells the story with a cast that ranges in age from 8 years to 45 years. Copeland says three different women, playing her at three different periods of her life, portray Tubman.
The music, he says, is pure beauty and is performed in part by award winning gospel performers.
“It’s an inspiring story,” says Copeland.
To be inspired by Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her time, you can see the show Friday, 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children. Call 252-338-6455 to reserve tickets or go to Arts of the Albemarle’s Center in downtown Elizabeth City.