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The Power of Harriet T: An interview with Gabrielle Graham and Reanna Joseph

Monday, February 1, 2016

To mark Black History Month, Manitoba Theatre for Young People is presenting The Power of Harriet T from February 3 to 14, 2016. The play shares the story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who fled slavery in the United States and then risked her own life to help other enslaved people escape to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad. 

Harriet Tubman is portrayed by actors Gabrielle Graham and Reanna Joseph. Graham lives in Toronto and is a recent graduate of the Acting Conservatory at York University, where she performed in many productions, including Tough, The Penelopiad and The Estatic Bible. Joseph hails from Winnipeg, where she is the co-founder and artistic director of Evolve Dance Company and a graduate of the University of Winnipeg’s Theatre and Film Program.  She has performed in shows such as West Side Story, Top Girls and R Rated. She has also worked as choreographer and a collaborator on many theatre, dance and art projects.  I had the chance to ask Graham and Joseph some questions about their lives and their work as they prepared for their upcoming production in The Power of Harriet T.

Two women dressed in 19th century clothes are looking around them. They appear to be afraid. The woman on the right is hanging onto the other woman’s arm.
Gabrielle Graham (left) and Reanna Joseph performing in The Power of Harriet T. Photo courtesy of MTYP.

 

Is Black History Month important to you?

Reanna Joseph: Yes. History has always been told by white men and so many important stories have been left out.  Black History Month is an opportunity for people to learn about history from another point of view.

Gabrielle Graham: Black history is definitely important to me because it is a big part of my identity. To know where Black people have come from and how many obstacles we've conquered to get to where we are today shows how powerful, strong and determined we are. It gives me pride and it reminds me to uphold those traits when facing some of the struggles I have today, being a Black woman.

What kinds of challenges have you faced as Black artists and performers?  How have you handled these challenges?

Reanna Joseph: There are not a lot of roles available to people of colour. When I was growing up I only ever saw white actors in lead roles. It wasn’t until my first year of university that I even knew about blind casting. The way I tried to combat the lack of roles is by producing my own work. I started my own dance company to promote more diversity. I have also been told I do not sound “Black” enough. I do not know how to overcome this challenge yet. I don’t exactly know why people want me to sound a certain way when Caucasian actors can have any accent and still be considered mainstream.

Gabrielle Graham: When I was in my first year of university (I believe I was 18 or 19) I had the wonderful opportunity to play Nina in a scene from The Seagull. During a rehearsal of my scene I innocently asked my acting teacher “...so am I playing a white person?” The author was white and Russian, all of the characters in the play were Russian (in the time the play was set, it wasn't very often that you saw a Black Russian) and my scene partner was white, so I assumed Nina was a white woman. At first, I struggled to relate to her because of this. After much explanation from my teacher I eventually came to grips with the fact that I am bringing a part of me into this character despite who I think the author has written it for.

Do you think the performing arts can help promote racial inclusion and human rights?

Reanna Joseph: I do! I strongly believe that performing arts can help promote racial inclusion and human rights. There are so many examples in recent history of how art has influenced our culture or at least started a conversation.

Gabrielle Graham: Of course. Performing art schools in particular can do that by diversifying their curriculum like including non-European studies, plays, dance, etc.

Why is it important for you to share the story of Harriet Tubman?

Reanna Joseph: It is important because she is a role model for young women who face adversity. Harriet was a slave, uneducated and a woman, but she was able to achieve so much.  She shows people that you don’t have to be privileged to make a difference.

Gabrielle Graham: It is not very often that you get to play a part like this. She was a compassionate, loving, selfless strong black woman, so being able to play her not only inspires me but anyone I get to share this story with. I get the opportunity to play an incredible woman and expand the minds of young people with her story, so I'm very grateful for that. 

 

Tickets for The Power of Harriet T are available on the Manitoba Theatre for Young People website and Museum members receive a 15% discount! You can learn more about slavery in the United States and Canada as well as the Underground Railway at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 

Stay tuned: the next entry for our Black History Month blog series will be an interview with award-winning author Lawrence Hill!