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Harriet Tubman Story A Folk Opera

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Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and led countless others to freedom, too. And even though she did this a century and a half ago, her story is still being told today. A highly creative version of Tubman’s story will soon come to life on stage in operatic form. A second generation Nigerian-American named Nkeiru Okoye has written an opera about Harriet Tubman, based on the stories her mother constantly read her and her sisters as they shuttled back and forth between Nigeria and the United States throughout their childhood.

“I don’t remember ever not knowing about Harriet Tubman,” she said. “My mother used to love to read my sister and me stories, so my mother probably told me about her even before I learned about Harriet in school.”

Harriet Tubman was born into a family of slaves around 1820. In 1849–which, of course, was years before the Civil War and the subsequent freeing of slaves, Tubman escaped and traveled north. She created what is still talked of today as the Underground Railroad–a series of safe houses for slaves escaping the south and making her same journey north to freedom. The people who ran the “railroad” were called “conductors.”

Okoye started out planning to write a work of fiction based on Harriet Tubman’s life, but as she delved even deeper beyond those stories her mother read during childhood, she knew Tubman’s actual life itself held all she needed to tell a compelling and positively fascinating story. So she concentrated on the truth far more than on what has become known as legend.

“I spent three years getting to know Harriet’s world,” she said.

A folk opera is what Okoye wound up creating from her in depth study. Called When I Crossed the Line to Freedom, her work is now being presented by the American Opera Projects. They received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts to present works about Harriet Tubman during 2014–the 100th anniversary of her passing.

So what exactly is a folk opera?

It “is slightly different from regular opera. Most of the music in Harriet Tubman is rooted in traditional African-American folk idioms,” Okoye said. “So there are elements of gospel, jazz, blues, and then you hear a “field holler,” you hear ragtime, work songs and there are things that sound like spirituals throughout the opera.”

The world premiere of Okoye’s opera will take place in Brooklyn, New York on February 21st at the Irondale Center.

This sounds like yet another story in U.S. history that deserves telling and that people all over the country should see. Hopefully additional funding will allow Harriet Tubman’s story to be told–in its folk opera form–all around the nation.

Image via Wikimedia

Harriet Tubman Story A Folk Opera
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  • Jay Wiloby

    Harriet Tubman was one of the most courageous individuals in the history of our country.

    BUT! Why didn’t your two articles mention the support of the Quakers? Where would the escaped slaves have found food, shelter and hiding places?

    Was the librettist/creator guilty of this oversight or only the journalists who didn’t provide the full story?

    Jay W