Underground Railroad play graduates from school to Proctors
By Bill Buell
There are thousands of compelling accounts relating to the Underground Railroad in the two to three decades before the Civil War, but few of them can match the drama and suspense found in the stories of Solomon Northup and Charles Nalle.
Northup, who lived much of his life in Saratoga Springs, and Nalle, who made Troy his home after escaping to freedom in 1858, have the kind of life history that, according to Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill and Jill Rafferty-Weinisch, was made for the theater. Ten years ago, the two women put their heads together to come up with “A Friend of a Friend,” and this week, after touring area schools for nine years, their play about the Capital Region’s role in the Underground Railroad will be presented at Proctors’ GE Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The story of Solomon Northup is absolutely one of the most compelling I’ve ever read,” said Mancinelli-Cahill, producing artistic director at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. “If it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe it. Along with the Erie Canal and the women’s suffragette movement, New York has an amazing legacy, and being from the West I never realized how much of that history had to do with the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. These are great stories.”
“A Friend of a Friend” was written for Capital Rep’s education program, which in 2003 was led by Rafferty-Weinisch, now the youth director for Equinox Inc. in Albany.
‘A Friend of a Friend’
WHERE: GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 10 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
HOW MUCH: $12-$9
MORE INFO: 382-3884, ext. 139, www.proctors.org
A GOOD FIT
“We needed something that could fit into the classroom and one class period, and there aren’t that many 45- to 50-minute plays out there,” said Rafferty-Weinisch. “We also discovered some of our material wasn’t always ideal because it didn’t quite fit the school’s curriculum exactly, so we decided to write our own play. Maggie was quite experienced at adapting material for the stage, and I came at it from the educator’s angle. I understood what schools needed.”
The playwriting team of Mancinelli-Cahill and Rafferty-Weinisch got a big assist from Jennifer Lee, an intern at Capital Rep in 2003. Lee combed the Internet looking for Underground Railroad stories relating to New York’s history and searched the collections of the New York State Archives and the Albany Institute of History & Art.
“We wanted this play to be document-based, and we wanted the words to be words that the people actually said,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “Our researcher did a lot of great work for us, and we took a lot of material from ‘The Northern Star,’ an abolitionist newspaper printed by Stephen and Harriet Myers, two African-Americans and abolitionists right here in Albany.”
Along with going over Lee’s hard work, Mancinelli-Cahill and Rafferty-Weinisch talked to Paul and Mary Liz Stewart of the Underground Railroad Project of the Capital District.
“Jennifer was a wonderful intern, and we also met with Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, and they put us on the trail of the more interesting stories connected to this area,” said Rafferty-Weinisch. “They told us of the stories that are important to tell, and that’s what the theater is all about. The more we looked into the stories the more compelling they became.”
Much of “A Friend of a Friend” centers on the story of Northup, a free-born black man from Saratoga Springs who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 while on a trip to Washington, D.C. Northup was taken to Louisiana and held in bondage for 12 years before finally being freed with the help of New York state and a law passed in 1840 designed to return free blacks who had been abducted into slavery.
When Northup returned to the area in 1853, he wrote a book, “Twelve Years a Slave,” and spent much of his time lecturing in support of the abolitionist cause while also working on the Underground Railroad. His later years are a bit of a mystery, and historians are uncertain of just when Northup died, suggesting it was sometime between 1864 and 1875.
ESCAPE TO TROY
Nalle, meanwhile, was born a slave in 1821 in Stevensburg, Va., and escaped north to Troy in 1858. Hired on by wealthy Troy resident Uri Gilbert as a coachman, Nalle seemed safe and secure in his new life before Blucher Hansbrough, his slave master and also his half-brother, hired a slave catcher with the intent of tracking down Nalle and taking him back to Virginia. On April 27, 1860, while on an errand for Mrs. Gilbert, Nalle was arrested by the slave catcher with the aid of a federal deputy marshal, and taken away in handcuffs to the Troy jail at First and State streets.
Nalle, however, had plenty of friends, black and white, and included in that group was famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who just happened to be visiting relatives in Troy. With a large crowd waiting outside the jail to help, Tubman disguised herself as an old woman looking to comfort Nalle with prayer, and got entrance into the jail. As Nalle was being moved from the building, Tubman sprang into action as did the crowd outside, and the prisoner was whisked away by his supporters to the nearby Hudson River where a boat was waiting for him. Officials were waiting for Nalle on the other side of the river in South Troy and arrested him, but once again Tubman and a large crowd came to his support and Nalle escaped, this time to Niskayuna. His friends eventually raised enough money to give Nalle his freedom and he returned to Troy.
PLAYS FOR KIDS
The shows are directed at students in grades 4-8, and Mancinelli-Cahill is hoping to come up with a few more original productions based on New York history.
“Our goal, our commitment, is to provide quality productions based on the New York school curriculum,” she said. “We want to tour throughout the entire Erie Canal corridor, and we’re going to add to our repertory by commissioning a few new plays.”
Capital Rep partners with Proctors to produce the plays, and previous original productions include “Petticoats of Steel,” about the women’s suffragette movement, and “The Remarkable and Perplexing Case of Henry H,” about the discovery of New York and the Hudson River.
Originally, Capital Rep invited schools to attend a production at its theater on South Pearl Street in Albany. That still happens, but now the Capital Rep education program takes its shows on the road.
“This show will be in 20 different locations, and Proctors will be one of them,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “With schools going through budget crises these days, it’s not also easy for them to bus their students to Albany. So that’s why we’ve been taking the show on the road, and we’re also very excited to be putting on two productions at Proctors in the beautiful GE Theatre.”
There are three actors making up the cast of “A Friend of a Friend.” They are Kevin Craig West, Bianca Stinney and Cornelius Geaney. Terry Rabine of the Lake George Dinner Theatre is directing. There will be a 15-minute preshow discussion of the play, as well as a postshow discussion.