Hear Harriet Tubman speak at CMC Spring Valley and Rifle
IF YOU GO
4:30-6 p.m. Tuesday
CMC Spring Valley
New Space Theatre, 3000 County Road 14, Glenwood Springs
4:30-6 p.m. Wednesday
Clough Auditorium, 3694 Airport Road
If you could ask Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman anything, what would it be?
Garfield County residents will have two opportunities to do so next week — or well, two opportunities to come as close as is possible. Actor and scholar Becky Stone will portray Harriet Tubman during a Tuesday performance in Glenwood Springs and Wednesday in Rifle. It’s part of Black History Live, an annual tour by Colorado Humanities.
Stone is a Chautauqua performer, a tradition that combines scholarship and performance to share history.
Here’s how it works: After Colorado Humanities Foundation Program coordinator Betty Jo Brenner introduces the program, Stone-as-Tubman will tell stories for 40 minutes. She’ll share the abolitionist Tubman’s experience growing up as a slave in Maryland, escaping to freedom and helping others do the same.
The audience can then ask questions, which Stone will answer in character. After a short break, Brenner will again introduce Stone, this time as herself: a trained actress and National Humanities Scholar who calls North Carolina home.
“The questions from the audience still can be about Harriet, (and) they could be about things that Harriet did not experience: When did she die, what would she think of politics or race relations as they’re going on now, the sort of thing you shouldn’t ask the real Harriet who I’m trying to portray,” Stone said.
Her study of Tubman and others allows Stone to shift direction based on the audience’s response; she has a deep understanding of their histories.
“One of the things that’s different about it, and one reason I like storytelling: Usually the house lights are up and you have eye contact with your audience and you can shape your story as you’re telling it,” Stone said.
Stone is more than a decade into her portrayal of Tubman, but a lesser-known historical figure first drew her into Chautauquan performances. A Chauatauqua Society in Greenville, South Carolina, needed someone to portray an obscure black North Carolinian, and they couldn’t find anyone already in that role. The society contacted the library in Asheville, North Carolina, where Stone lives, and asked if they could recommend an actor.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to go back to school and do the research and get paid for it,” Stone said.
Several years later, the same group asked if she would portray Rosa Parks. Then, scholars published work about Harriet Tubman, and Stone prepared to step into this role.
Chautauquan characters must be American, dead and have scholarship published about them. Until that time, there wasn’t enough material on Tubman to make this portrayal possible.
Stone is now researching Maya Angelou in order to portray her in Greenville’s June festival.
“Whereas Harriet Tubman had three books written about her that are trustworthy, Maya Angelou is just huge,” Stone said. She’s read seven autobiographies, volumes of poetry and more and watched interviews with Angelou.
HERE TO THERE
Black history is American history, but Stone said she has noticed differences performing in the South and the West.
In the South, “there’s a familiarity, not only with the Civil War and with the civil rights battles, but there is a certain level of knowledge about what it’s like to have a large, a significant black community in your life. When I have come to various parts of Colorado … there’s not that large black population and therefore that experience among people.”
She adapts her stories to include more background when she sees the audience needs that. Chautauqua programs, which tend to be popular in the Midwest and near west, attract primarily educated, white audiences. However, since she plays black historical figures, Stone said she rarely speaks to an all-white audience.
“I gauge (familiarity with black history) as a storyteller, a performer. If this is taking them by surprise, wait till they hear this story. I can broaden their horizons,” she said. “That’s as true for black adolescents as it is for older, white, middle-class, educated audiences.”
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