By Chris Boyd
The struggles and victories of Harriet Tubman were brought to life Wednesday for Daniels Elementary students. Storyteller Ilene Evans became the iconic abolitionist, even answering questions in character after the presentation.
Eager children sat on the floor of the gymnasium while Evans told the stories of Tubman through bold gestures, suggestive of her past as a dancer, and a strong, captivating voice. She sang songs and selected students from the crowd to illustrate, through movement, the grapevine, chain gangs and Underground Railroad.
The seasoned dramatist commanded respect from the children and they listened intently to everything she said and sang. They were especially responsive to the movement exercises she led them through and erupted in applause many times during the piece.
Harriet Tubman, born in Dorchester, Md., was an African-American abolitionist and humanitarian. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made around 20 missions to rescue more than 300 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and after the Civil War worked for women’s suffrage.
On Wednesday, Daniels Elementary students asked questions such as, “How did you find the courage to help free the slaves?”
To which Evans responded, as Tubman:
“When you are afraid, that’s when you make mistakes. And remember what I told you, where courage comes from. Keeping the people that you love here, in your heart, in your mind. They will help your feet do what they need to do.”
Another child asked, “What did you eat while you were on the Underground Railroad?”
She responded, “We ate what we could find and what people would leave for us in secret. Sometimes you would eat the things you (would) find in the forest.”
When asked about her program’s inclusion in the schools observance of Black History Month, she responded with a smile.
“I do this 365 days a year so it’s always an aspect of history for me. This is an everybody story.”
Additionally, Evans expanded on how the presentation brings a piece of the past forward so the children can interact with history.
“In the portrayal of the Underground Railroad we are trying to help bring to life some issues and aspects of our history that are so different from today’s world, it’s hard to imagine until you have a more physical presentation, visually. This is one of the reasons why ... If you can have the clothing of the time, the materials of the time ... All these things I have are hand-made, they are made with some significance to her life, (so) that if one of the students asks me a question about it, it would relate.”
The message that she brought was a history of the life of Harriet Tubman, but it was also a vehicle to engage the children and cause them to think of their own freedom and the idea of slavery.
“How do I use my freedom in a way that makes this world a better place? That’s what I left these 4th, 5th and 6th graders with today. How do we recognize when we are losing our freedom?”
Ilene Evans is artistic director for Voices from the Earth whose mission is to bring to life tales of courage, freedom and valor through storytelling, theater and historical portrayal to promote listening, learning, respect and thoughtfulness. The West Virginia Humanities Council sponsored the performance as a part of their History Alive! program.
For more information about this program and others offered in the History Alive! series, visit www.wvhumanities.org.
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