“Pathway To Freedom” – Getting Ready For The Show
Ladies, Gentlemen, & Friends: Meet Levi & Katherine (aka Katie) Coffin, circa 1850. They helped make (and followed) the Underground Railroad from central North Carolina to Indiana and Ohio . . . .
Oh, wait — Meet Levi & Katie Coffin, 2016 . . . Snow Camp NC
Normally, the young folks above are named Sarah Hornaday and Jay Williams.
But this summer they’ll be the Coffins in the upcoming production of the amazing play, Pathway to Freedom, which opens its 22nd season at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in Snow Camp on July 7. (Counting the days!) And as in real life, these thespian Coffins are involved in the Underground Railroad, and its risks.
The cast is hard at work now, learning their lines, practicing scenes, and between rehearsals helping out with technical and scenery preparation.
I got to sit in on the first read-through of the entire script, on the evening of June 19. The cast members sat in the ampitheatre as the dusk fell, and the stunning song of wood thrushes filled the surrounding forest.
By the time the drama’s shattering climax had been recited, night had fallen. The green trees were inky silhouettes. Faces and script pages were lit by glowing cell phone screens. And the story was as powerful as the first time I saw it, more than ten years ago.
Here are some of the more visible characters: Esse (Charee Devon, in pink, at left), who makes a desperate attempt to escape slavery with her children; the tough, wily Jeter Hatfield (Chris Hornaday, gray shirt & ponytail) who guides the escapees, while toting a gun and knowing how to use it; and William, Esse’s stricken husband (Carlos James, in black ball cap), who’s desperate to find his wife and children.
And that’s not to mention Mama Harris (Jalila A. Bowie, left), who is mostly unarmed, except for her iron skillet, and an iron will.
Before they began reading, Director James Shields set the historical scene for them, about the cruel daily realities of slavery, even in central NC where so many Quakers lived and struggled against it. He explained that in Pathway, playwright Mark Sumner had aimed to get at the emotional as well as the historical truth of this complex situation. That goes even for the parts that make many uncomfortable today. For instance, Shields explained to the white actors that the word “nigger” is in the story, because it was part of the speech of those days, “and you have to learn to speak it like you mean it.” It’s also in one of the traditional songs that black cast members sing. “We could have been PC and changed it,” Shields said, “but as much as I dislike the word, we’re about the truth here.”
The characters are not stereotypes. George Vestal, who starts as an oblivious slaveholder, is battered by shocks that open his eyes, turn his world upside down, and threaten his future. The dedication of the Quakers here to nonviolence is challenged increasingly by the hardening of laws and hearts in the larger white community, making violence more prevalent and more traumatic. We in the audience can see the coming Civil War that would soon engulf their world. We can also discern that, while the journey of the characters may be over, we in the seats, even 160 years later, are by no means at the destination toward which the Pathway to Freedom has been headed for so long.
Pathway to Freedom will be performed on twelve nights in July and August. For more details about the show, including tickets and directions, click here to go to its website.