by Janine Sobeck
Last night we completed the current season of the Downstairs New Play Reading Series with a reading of Lydia Diamond's Harriet Jacobs.
Now, I'm going to be honest. I'm a history buff- especially American history. But the first time I had heard of Harriet Jacobs was when I read Lydia's play a little over a year ago. However, the story intrigued me enough that when Lydia suggested this work for the series, the first words out of my mouth were, "Oh, the girl that hid in the box. That's a crazy story."
And a crazy story it is. Based on her autobiographical tale "Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl," Harriet recounts her life as a house slave, the obsession and sexual advances of her master, and her desperate flight to freedom. However, Harriet's tale takes an unexpected twist. Harriet was, at that time, the mother to two children (fathered by a white lawyer). Unwilling to leave them behind, but unable to make the journey with them, Harriet made the ultimate sacrifice. With the knowledge that her children would be bought by their father and raised by her grandmother, Harriet "moved into"a tiny crawlspace above the porch of her grandmothers house. There, in a space that was nine feet long, seven feet wide with sloping ceiling that didn't allow her to turn over, Harriet remained for SEVEN YEARS, watching her children grow through a peephole. Finally, in 1842, she made the journey north.
In the discussion after the reading, I was curious. Was I the only one ignorant of this fantastic tale? So I asked. And only two other people in the audience raised their hands saying that they had heard of Harriet Jacobs before encountering this play.
I find that somewhat overwhelming. Lydia mentioned during the day the somewhat ironic fact that we are a society where everyone (rightly) knows the story of Anne Frank, and her time in hiding to escape the Nazis. I recently had the chance to travel to Amsterdam and was able to go into the house and the secret annex, and let me tell you, seeing the small space that the family lived in, and knowing the conditions they endured made the story all the more poignant. And yet, in the theatre yesterday, we were telling a similar story of courage, oppression and sacrifice of a young woman (she was only 22 when she went into the space) whose writing gives us incredible insight into a world that most of us find unimaginable. And, yet, this story - which comes straight out of our country's own history - is relatively unknown.
After the experience we had with the work, and feeling the power that Harriet's story has, all I can say is: I hope that changes.