Acclaimed actress brings Underground Railroad to life in USACE performance
February 26, 2013
A standing-room only audience representing multiple federal agencies saw, and participated in, an emotive presentation of the life and times of Harriet Tubman in the City Crescent Building on Feb. 26, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, observance of African American Black History Month.
Entitled "Harriet Tubman: The Chosen One," multi-talented actress Gwendolyn Brilley-Strand used costumes and singing with storytelling to demonstrate Tubman's struggles and triumphs during her lifetime from 1820-1913.
Bringing greetings from the federal community here, Col. Trey Jordan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District commander, noted that the Defense Department theme for African American Black Heritage Month is "At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality." He said, "It is fitting to note her accomplishments in any year but particularly this year which is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech."
The 45-minute performance took the audience through the life and times of Harriet Tubman, a Maryland native, which encompassed slavery and its abolition in America. The emphasis was on her personal determination to create what became known as the "Underground Railroad". Even though it had "stations" and people serving as "conductors," it was a dangerous journey, known only by word of mouth, with the threat of capture and return always present. Employing a biblical theme, she became known as "Moses" who, like the Old Testament prophet, led the people out of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and into freedom.
Often singing snippets of old-time spirituals and leading the audience in "Go Down Moses," she set each segment using simple props such as hats or shawls. The segments were historically accurate and riveting and, sometimes, uncomfortable for the audience. In one scene, she added a pipe to bring up the image of a plantation owner; in another, her character cracked a whip to remind modern-day Americans of the brutality of that era.
Dorchester County, Md., was a key location on the underground railroad journey and she reminded the audience that a network of people supported what was then an illegal activity. Discounting personal dangers, she led parties of slaves to freedom in Pennsylvania. Eventually, she had to take them to Canada because the Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in 1850, said that runaway slaves had to be returned.
Ms. Brilley-Strand has performed on stage, television and in movie theaters for over 20 years. A graduate of Fordham University in New York City, her television credits include "Law and Order" and "The West Wing" and her film credits include "Species II," "Contact" and "Mars Attacks."
She has taken her performance of Harriet Tubman to the White House in 1991 and 1992 as well as to universities and organizations across the United States. She will also visit the District's Real Property Services Field Office and Washington Aqueduct this week. A preview of her performance can be viewed at: http://youtu.be/WDdgeoBWs-o.