In ‘Harriet,’ a story of a slave girl’s resilience

Kami Rushell Smith stars as the title character in “Harriet Jacobs,’’ at Central Square Theater. Kami Rushell Smith stars as the title character in “Harriet Jacobs,’’ at Central Square Theater. (Elizabeth Stewart)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 12, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - In “Harriet Jacobs,’’ Lydia R. Diamond’s searing dramatization of America’s legacy of slavery, Diamond mobilizes her gifted pen and her powers of empathy to tell the story of one extraordinary woman.

How extraordinary? Try this: Jacobs escaped her North Carolina master in 1835 and hid for seven years in a tiny crawl space in the attic of her grandmother’s house, forced to watch her two young children through a peephole, before making her way north to freedom.

Though its ending is a bit abrupt, “Harriet Jacobs’’ is a stirring, intricately layered work that stars Kami Rushell Smith in a performance you will find hard to forget. With the able support of a versatile, all-black cast (playing both black and white characters), Smith conveys the depths of Jacobs’s torment and the resilience of her spirit with equal power.

Diamond, one of Boston’s finest playwrights and the author of such plays as “Voyeurs de Venus,’’ “The Bluest Eye,’’ and “Stick Fly’’ - which comes to the Huntington Theatre Company next month - was inspired to write “Harriet Jacobs’’ by Jacobs’s 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.’’

It is fitting that Jacobs’s story should live again at Central Square Theater, since she worked with Boston abolitionists and she moved to Cambridge in 1870, where she ran a boarding house for Harvard students. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The book begins with the heartrending words “I was born a slave.’’ It was a condition that Harriet refused to accept. “The more my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property,’’ she wrote in “Incidents.’’

However, her master, Dr. James Norcom, did not see it that way. Starting when Harriet was 12, he began to sexually harass her. She resisted him. In “Harriet Jacobs,’’ he has his revenge. When Harriet’s sweetheart, Tom (an appealing Sheldon Best), offers Norcom $700 to buy her freedom, the master (played by Raidge, a hip-hop artist and poet) burns the money, then tells Tom: “I’ll sell her to you for $850, and not a penny less - on the day hell freezes over.’’

By the time she is 16, Harriet feels increasingly trapped by Norcom’s predations and the escalating hostility of Norcom’s wife (Kortney Adams). A white neighbor named Samuel Treadwell Sawyer (De’Lon Grant) begins to woo her. She sees a chance for protection from Norcom. In one of the play’s most wrenching scenes, Harriet pleads for understanding from the audience, explaining that some choices are not choices at all.

When we next see her, she is pregnant with Sawyer’s child. They will go on to have another child together. But still Norcom is relentless. Escalating his pressure on her to submit to his sexual exploitation, he threatens to sell Harriet’s children. At that point, she decides to flee, and finds refuge with her grandmother (Ramona Lisa Alexander).

Throughout “Harriet Jacobs,’’ Diamond brings us inside Harriet’s mind (especially when she is cooped up inside the crawl space), while she also broadens the frame to illustrate the wider horrors of slavery. Harriet’s story is interwoven with brief but chilling accounts by slaves who step forward to tell stories that, as Harriet says, “you may believe you know’’ but are “slightly beyond knowing.’’

Indisputably true. “Harriet Jacobs’’ takes us at least partway to knowing, although when Harriet ends the play by telling us that she “found [her] voice’’ during her years of hiding, I was left wishing I’d seen more of how that empowerment came about. It seemed as though both Harriet and Diamond had more to say.

Still, on balance, this play delivers on Harriet’s early promise to the audience: “My soul. This is mine. This has always been mine. My heart, my soul, this is what I wish to share. With you.’’


Play by Lydia R. Diamond, inspired by “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,’’ by Harriet Jacobs

Directed by: Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Lights, David Roy. Sets, Susan Zeeman Rogers. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Presented by Underground Railway Theater in collaboration with Providence Black Repertory Company.

At: Central Square Theater, through Jan. 31. 866-811-4111,