Arts & Culture

UK Theatre Alum Reimagines Harriet Tubman’s Story

Video by Jenny Wells-Hosley/UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 1, 2019) This weekend film and African American history enthusiasts alike will head to the movies to see the first major biopic on the country’s most well-known “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman.

One of those viewers excitedly anticipating “Harriet” is University of Kentucky theatre alumna Lacresha Berry, who wrote her own one-woman show on the American icon.

“I think it's really important to tell her story, and I think it's important to tell Harriet Tubman's story in a movie, in a play, in songs, everywhere.

“It's like she was this awesome woman that carried a gun, and she wouldn't leave anybody behind,” Berry said. “But I think if you read more of her story, she is so complex just like all of us. When we hold our heroes up on this larger-than-life pedestal, we don't realize that they're human too. And so, I think we'll have to continue to keep researching, continue to keep talking about her.”

Though Tubman died over 100 years ago, the breadth of her life story has only really begun to come to light in more recent years as interest in the American heroine has led to National Park Service sites and the choice to feature Tubman on currency.

That same interest has led to several performances of Berry’s “Tubman” in a variety of unconventional venues. The Lexington native, who now lives in New York City, has taken the show to prisons, academic conferences, schools, universities and thought circles, as well as theaters. And Berry’s calendar is already beginning to fill up with dates for “Tubman” in 2020 at such places as Penn State University, Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center, the African American Museum in Baltimore and Harlem Stage.

UKNow recently caught up with Berry to talk about her time at UK, “Tubman” and other projects on the horizon.

UKNow: Who inspired you to follow your interest in the arts?

Lacresha Berry: I would say Miss Osterman (Lisa Osterman). She was a teacher at Tates Creek High School. She just saw something in me that I didn't know that I had. I had a passion, but I just didn't know that theater was my path until she said, “Try this speech and drama class. Try this audition here. Try this.” Next thing I know, she's inspiring me to try out, audition, and I'm going to University of Kentucky for theatre.

UKNow: Any special memories at UK?

Berry: I played Rosa Parks in the production of “Buses” in 2002. For a while, I thought I was going to only focus on costume design for stage and film. But then when I got that role, I was like maybe acting is still here for me. That was a very memorable production because we got a chance to go to Sarah Lawrence College and perform in New York City. And that's when I had an interview with NYU (graduate school) to do costume design for stage and film.

I also enjoyed designing two shows. I did “The Colored Museum” here in 2002 and “El Mundo de los Sueños” was 2003. I got to design and measure everyone. I got to know all the actors and go and shop at Joanne's Fabrics. That was my thing. We just got a chance to really delve into the work.

UKNow: Did you write any work for the stage while at UK?

Berry: I did, but it wasn't for a project. It was just because I wanted to do it, and I was inspired by Anna Deavere Smith. She is one of the most famous solo artists in my generation. And I was like, I feel like my energy is a one-woman show solo performer energy. I did “My Pencil Doesn't Have an Eraser,” which was about growing up and dealing with my father's terminal illness, and then "15 Pounds” about losing weight and diet culture.

I think I got into playwriting because of my African American playwrights’ class. We were reading a lot of things with August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and different playwrights. So, I was like I think it's time for me to start writing what I want to read and writing what I want to see in the world.

UKNow: Any UK faculty you felt impacted you?

Berry: There were two professors that really changed my perspective as a student here. One is Bill Caise. He's no longer a professor here, but he saw that I could write.

I didn't really know I could write plays, but we had to write monologues, and he was like you should pursue this for your career. I was like, “What?” He was such a strong supporter of my work. He kept saying “Don't give up. Keep going. Apply here. Apply there. Apply.” So that was one inspiration.

And then Nelson Fields, I'll never forget. One of the things he gave me was a portfolio to take with me — I still have it to this day. I still have my old costume designs from all of my shows in this red leather zipped-up portfolio. It was like he passed it down to me. And I thought it was so special. That memory to me is — here's my blessing, go out in the world, and do what I know you can do. And I'll never forget it. 

I always talk about Nelson Fields because if I was struggling with something, he’d let me cry, and be like, “It's OK. Now, let's figure it out. What classes are you going to take instead? It's all right. How many more credits do you need to graduate?”

He's always been in my memory to this day. That got me through college, because I didn't have a language for college. I didn't know what college is like because nobody that I knew of in my immediate family went to college. He was one of the ones that guided me through everything. I'll just never forget.

UKNow: So, you did costume design, acting, playwriting, stage managing while you were at UK. How important are those skills to you now with your one-woman shows?

Berry: It is so important to have a BA in theatre, especially if you're trying to still figure it all out. I’ve had to write lighting plots. I've had to design stages. I've had to do sound. I've had to do visual and technical things for one-woman shows.

If I didn't have access to how things worked or lighting or sound cues or any of that with a BA in theatre, then I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing. It's great if you have an ensemble and you have a lighting director or a lighting designer, if you have a sound designer, if you have a costume designer. But as a one-woman show, who's going to do it for you? What do you want your set to look like?

Most of the time, I'm focused more on character and plot development, so I don't need much as far as set goes. Still, thinking about the visuals on stage and how that's going to enhance the story, it's a big deal. I've had to do a lot of lighting work. I've had to do a lot of sound work. I had to do a lot of set design work.

And what I also say about that is, I thought that being a singer or performer was going to be my only path, but I'm also blogging. I'm also on social media with different ideas, and now I'm working with hair brands and companies about designs in my hair. You can be an artist in more ways than one now, especially with social media, and especially with being visible and having video and things that really capture your essence and your energy and personality. Do it all. 

UKNow: What made you decide to go to New York?  

Berry: I didn't think of ever coming back to Kentucky only because I felt like I wanted to really pursue theater. I just didn't know how it was going to happen because once I was done with my costume design work, I ended up being an after-school teacher. The next thing you know, I am getting a salary, and I'm a teacher for 10 years in Harlem.

For a while, I shut it off because I felt like being a teacher was safer than pursuing with vigor the career in theater. But I think staying in New York kept me inspired to perform.

I hadn't acted in a while, but I was performing on stage because I was singing in a lot of different places. I thought maybe singing would've been my path. But once I started delving back into what I did in college, that's when things started to pick up a lot more with “Browngirl. Bluegrass,” with “Tubman.”

I stayed there because I was hungry still, but I just didn't know how it was going to play out.

UKNow: Tell us a little bit about that return to theater with “Browngirl. Bluegrass.”

Berry: My father passed away in 2010, and that gave me a sense of urgency. I said well, what if someone else passes away in my family? I don't have a history. I don't have a record. I don't have anything talking about my family. “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” came out of that need for me to search for Kentucky history. Because even though I wasn't born here, I was raised here from age 4 to 24. I feel that is a huge part of my womanhood. As a person, as a citizen in the world, Kentucky was a big part of it.

Well, once my dad died, I had this urgency in my body. It didn't really hit me until a couple of years later when things started to come to me like, why am I so proud? Or why am I always, “Go cats! Go cats! Blue. Blue. Blue.” Why am I always talking about Kentucky? Why am I always saying, “In Kentucky this and Kentucky that?” I thought about it. I was like, well, I'm more than just one thing.

And I think a lot of times when I was in New York, I was embarrassed to be from Kentucky, from the South, a country girl, or whatever. Everybody there is so affluent and traveling the world. And I was like, I'm country too.

With that being said, I just thought “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” came to me because there is a need of duality. It's like, “Yes, I'm New York and hip hop, but I'm also super country and also Shania Twain, and also the Dixie Chicks, and also horses and grass and cows and everything hemp and all of these things that are wonderful about Kentucky.”

I came back for a week to do research. Then I just started going — based on the research and on what a lot of my mentors told me — and searched for different names and found out there were a lot of people that were like me that lived in Kentucky 100 years before my time. So that's how it started.

UKNow: You brought “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” back to Lexington. Tell us what it's like to bring home a play about Kentucky and stage it in front of a hometown audience.

Berry: To bring back “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” in front of a hometown audience was more than I could ever think of. I did not think that it would it be so huge. I mean, I know it's called Browngirl and Bluegrass. I just didn't know how big it was going to be. I came back four times and performed in front of over 2,000 people. The Lyric was my biggest show to date. Sold out. Standing room only. Could not believe it.

It was overwhelming because for so long I was told that maybe this might not be the path for you. I was told that maybe if you did a safe route, a safe path, that maybe you'd be more comfortable, and you'd be paying your bills and you would not be facing eviction. And I know people were out for my best interest, but sometimes your passion outweighs everything else.

Being here, doing it in front of a hometown audience, I feel like was affirming and that if I could come back and do this, I can continue because that gave me the push that I needed to keep going. Because people wanted to hear more. They're like, “What are some other ideas that you're thinking about?”

So, it created a dialogue. It created a need. It was just a lot of things that had hit me all at once with that show.

UKNow: How important is it to give voice to kids growing up with those same dreams?

Berry: It feels great to offer programming that shows both sides of me, that shows who I am. Because if I had somebody like me in front telling me that you could do these certain things, like nothing is impossible — that's one of the songs in the show — if I would have had that, maybe I would have felt better about belonging in spaces. And if I feel that way, I know there's other kids who feel that way who might look like me or have the same story as me or the same experience as me growing up and going to school here and experiencing life and all these different things.

UKNow: What was creating “Tubman” like?

Berry: “Tubman” was much harder than “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” “Tubman” came about because I was thinking about my students in Harlem. I was teaching global history test prep, and I was like, well, how can I get my students to listen? How can I get my students to care about Harriet Tubman, because most of what we know about Tubman was Underground Railroad? That was the extent of it. I didn't even know her name was Araminta until I started doing research.

I was researching Tubman's life, going to her national park, reading so much, reading "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero" by Kate Clifford Lawson, reading her work. And I was like, “Wow, she's much more complex, but she sounds a lot like the students that I'm teaching. Maybe if she was in school, she might be defiant. She might be using her critical thinking in ways that people think is being obstinate or going against the rules.”

I was like, there's something here and I want to retell the story in a way where young people can understand it. What if I added some cool elements like rapping, like poetry? I took that idea and I combined it with the history. I was like, OK, what if we reimagine Tubman's story in a high school setting with a girl who is facing expulsion. And I felt like after reading the research that Tubman was quite defiant. She was not going to let anybody tell her no, especially if it's injustice.

So, I wrote that in 2017. It attracts younger people, in general, because I'm rapping and singing as Harriet Tubman. People want to see Tubman in one way, in the 1849 way, but I was like, I want to see her in the 2019 way because I don't want us to forget that we're still dealing in times of prejudice. We're still dealing in times of discrimination, but also, women being heard and having voices, and they're strong and powerful, and it's still as resonant today.

I felt like I needed to tell this story in this way. I felt like I needed to affirm those girls or students that have been through what Araminta has been through. There's a lot of students that are just like her, that have told me “No.” And of course, as an adult I will go, “What did you say?” But then they're using their critical thinking. Why are you saying no to me, but yes to them, or why is this happening? And so, I feel like a lot of the misunderstandings of girls like Araminta was from not being heard.

“Tubman” came out of that need to make those silenced voices heard, those marginalized voices heard, but also to think about Tubman in a new way. She was a mother. She was a wife. She was a sister, a spy, a nurse. She was so multifaceted. And I think as women, we're not just one thing, and we could be more than one thing, but society for a long time has said mothers, wives, that's it.

UKNow: Where do you hope to take “Tubman” or “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” next?

Berry: I would love to take “Tubman” and “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” to a residency. And what that, for me, would look like is I'm at a theater that houses 100-150 students, and we come and have a pre-show talk, I perform, have a post-show talk and do that every day. Or have two shows three times a week. To me, you can't stop talking about this work, so I feel like that would be an ideal situation for me.

I would love to still take “Browngirl. Bluegrass.” around Kentucky and talk about it through environmental advocacy and activism.

UKNow: You talked a bit about singing and how much you enjoyed it. Do you have any singing projects?

Berry: Singing projects are definitely on the map. I feel like singing was my first love. It's what I do best. I can sing everywhere, all day, all the time. I'm working on an album.

I grew up singing gospel music. That was my passion. Music will never, ever leave me. I think that's the reason why I incorporate a lot of music in my one-woman shows because I just can't separate it for me.

I love mixing soul music, but also futuristic, kind of other worldly sounds and hip hop. I don't know how to describe it, but something that deals with a lot of the things that I've been fighting emotionally and growing into the woman that I am now. So, a more introspective album.

UKNow: Any new plays?

Berry: Yes. My new play is dealing with gun violence and brutality and all of its forms. I'm really fascinated in a social justice way around the story of young kids being killed by forces that they can't control.

Aiyana Jones was wrongfully killed because of circumstances. She was 7 years old and died in her grandmother's lap because of a gunshot. I want to explore that story a little bit more and talk about what it might feel like from different perspectives. That new story idea came from when I was working with prison students, and I had a whole other one-woman show that I was going to be writing, and I was like this gun violence thing is so universal. And it's so appropriate right now because a lot of these young people are fighting for just living in schools. So that's passionate because I'm an educator.

And even though I might not be in the classroom forever — I think my classroom is now the stage — I need to be able to make stories that center on them and that lift their voices up.

UKNow: So, what would you tell that student interested in pursuing the arts?

Berry: I guess some advice I would say to students who are looking to do the same path as me or who are on their way to perform in the world is, “Be yourself.” I think for a long time, I was trying to be other people. And being other people is just not authentic. I've gotten more love and adoration and respect when I'm actually myself.

To keep up with Berry and her projects, visit her website at http://berryandcompanynyc.com/ or connect with her on YouTube, Twiiter and Instagram.

The Department of Theatre and Dance, part of UK College of Fine Arts, is an accredited institutional member of the National Association of Schools of Theatre. Students in the department get hands-on training and one-on-one mentorship from professional faculty and renowned guest artists in acting, directing, playwriting, theatrical design and technology. From mainstage productions to student-produced shows, students have plenty of opportunities to participate on stage or backstage. Special programs include a musical theatre certificate, education abroad, as well as a thriving dance program that emphasizes technique, composition, performance and production.

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photo of Lacresha Berry on stage in a performance of "Browngirl. Bluegrass."

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