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Harriet Jacobs, a slave in nineteenth-century America, documented her life and the ordeal of her escape in her memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Fleeing the torments of a lecherous, sexually obsessed master and his jealous wife by hiding for seven years in a tiny attic garret above her grandmother's house, Jacobs finally seized an opportunity to board a ship to freedom in New York. Written after her escape and published in 1861, the slave narrative became one of the most important texts of the abolitionist movement and was the inspiration for Harriet Jacobs, Lydia Diamond's newest literary adaptation for the stage. Harriet Jacobs provided artists and audiences alike the opportunity to understand the American slave experience through the live performance of one individual's journey to freedom. Seeing Jacobs's struggles embodied onstage created an intimacy and urgency to her story that is not immediately accessible in the formal language of her memoir. Kansas City Repertory Theatre director Jessica Thebus used spare yet versatile design elements, staged the act of writing to locate Jacobs's voice within and as the basis of the performance, and juxtaposed energetic ensemble scenes with quietly arresting monologues to emphasize the communal struggles and individual isolation of slavery in this dramatic representation of Jacobs's story.
The spare staging echoed the bareness of Jacobs's hiding place, her bleak prospects for escape, and the stark world of slavery. Collette Pollard (set design), J. R. Lederle (lighting design), Andre Pluess (composer/sound design), and Jeffrey Cady (projection design) developed an integrated aesthetic that evoked a sense of entrapment and desperation in the world of the play: Edenton, North Carolina, 1827-32. [End Page 460] The set consisted of a large, splintery wooden structure reminiscent of a primitive slave shack. In the back wall of the set were several tall, thin windows, which opened to a scrim that was lit for dramatic effect. At the beginning and end of the performance, projected on the scrim was the title page of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in homage to the inspiration for the play. Throughout the performance, the scrim displayed acres of cotton and tall pine trees, defining the topography where the slaves lived and worked. Through the windows, the performers' silhouettes appeared against this backdrop during scenes of harvesting, singing, and dancing. Viewing the performers through the set's narrow windows created the impression of looking between the bars of a jail cell, symbolizing the slaves' entrapment in the system. This eerie, stylized depiction of slaves' extreme physical labor, psychological burden, and resilient humanity both allowed the audience to imagine their experiences and created an aesthetic distance to facilitate critical reflection on the institution of slavery itself.
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Other design elements also communicated the desperate circumstances of the slaves' world. Using only essential hand-props and the occasional stool to establish location and action during scenes, the slaves' labor often involved stylized pantomime (Tyrone Aiken, movement director). The all-black cast played slaves, masters, and mistresses, the latter being designated by the donning of blindingly white costume pieces like gloves, top hat, and coattails or a corset and skirt worn on top of the actors' slave costumes. These pieces stood in stark contrast to the neutral and muted tones of the set and the slaves' clothing and threw the white characters into high relief against the slaves' environment. Jeremy Floyd's multilayered costume design emphasized the arbitrary designation, social construction, and material conditions of racial identities both during Jacobs's lifetime and in our contemporary society.
Diamond's script dramatizes Jacobs's documentation of her time in hiding. In this production, Jacobs's handwriting visually scrawled across the scrim, while the sound of writing aurally scratched through the air. This theatricalization emphasized the sheer volume of her writings and the passage of time. The prominent use of writing in the show highlighted Jacobs's narration of...