St. Stephen – The St. Stephen Middle School drama club is bringing the story of the Underground Railroad to the stage.
The play, titled “Unbound,” was written by teacher Scott Legge, who says this is the first play he’s ever written.
Prior to dress rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon, just after 2 p.m., the St. Stephen Middle School auditorium sprang to life, after waking from a quiet slumber.
Students filtered into the vintage theatre, chattering about their lines, or a particular scene. The walls amplified multiple voices, raised in seeming chaos, as the young actors prepared to take the stage.
Under the direction of Legge, 50 students, split into two groups, one a Grade 6 and 7 mix, and the other a Grade 7 and 8 mix, will perform the show for the first time on Wednesday, April 26, to a live audience.
“I couldn’t find any middle level plays on slavery or the Underground Railroad, and it’s not really in the school curriculum, so it’s the only way kids often have a chance to learn about stuff like this,” Legge said of his decision to write the play.
The two groups have been rehearsing for two months, after Legge wrote the play during Christmas break. He estimated he spent 40 hours writing the script, and said with editing, writing, and rehearsing, nearly 300 hours have gone in to the work.
“It’s pretty powerful,” Legge said of seeing his work come to fruition. “Writing a play is always unique, because you’re always editing, more so than you would normally. I just finished more edits [Monday night] we got a final-ish version again [Tuesday].
Version 552,” Legge added with a laugh.
Legge said he was “excited” for the students to perform the authentic play, but more so to see it as a learning experience.
“It’s something they will always remember. It’s the tip of an iceberg, and it’s going to offer a lifetime of unraveling, and learning, and understanding.
“It’s a huge topic and we’re just trying to wet the palette, so people have some idea, and hopefully go further, watch movies about, and have a better understanding of.”
As the lights dim, and the dress rehearsal begins, five students, Hillary Russell, Brianna Hawkes, Emily Brown, Nate Bilsky (Grade 8), and Evelyn McCaig (Grade 7) shed some light onto how the topic has touched their lives.
The group takes turns, explaining in order to participate in the play, they had to do research, and write an essay. Those who were interested enough to do the work, were given a spot in the play.
Wearing a thin, loose white fabric shirt, Bilsky said having knowledge about the topic prior to participating in the play, he felt “excited” it was something the group was going to cover.
“It’s a very important topic for people to know about. … It’s one of the things that’s shaped this country and America.”
For the other students, it was something they had heard of, but not something they’d researched until now.
“I knew about it a little bit, and I was aware a little bit about what went on, but it’s amazing to really dig in and research,” Hawkes said. “Doing a play about it, you learn a lot more, and your eyes are opened, and it’s like ‘oh my gosh’. I don’t know how it’s not talked about more.”
Russell, who plays Harriet Tubman, nodded her head in agreement.
“I knew about it a little bit, but had never done research on it. I feel like the way that I’m treated in the play even hurts me to know people were treated like that. I didn’t realize how good we have it,” Russell said, soberly, while the four students at her side agreed it has been an eye-opening experience.
“Trying to portray a plantation owner, it’s really hard because I’m not that type of person at all,” Brown said.
“I wish I could go back to that time, and shake them and just say ‘no’. To treat people like that based on the colour of their skin…” Brown added, leaving her sentence unfinished.
The subject is one the group all agreed is something they’ve taken home with them, since the experience began, and said there have been long conversations with their parents at home.
“We’ve had long conversations about it at the dinner table, and with dad especially with the politics around it…just about the dynamic of the whole thing and how terrible it was,” Bilsky said.
“It’s so much more relevant, especially for members of the LQBTQ community; I read in an article a little while ago there’s sort of a new [Underground Railroad] happening where they leave America because it’s so racist and come to Canada.”
Russell expanded on Bilsky’s thought.
“I’ve talked about it with my little brother, he didn’t know about it before, and we’ve even talked to our teachers about it. I find we talk about it a lot more.
“I went home and talked to my mom for about an hour after dinner about it. We just talked about it the whole time because I didn’t know enough information, and we just talked and talked. I feel like kids once they see this, they’re going to go home and want to talk about it.”
The group explained they hope it will spark a necessary discussion about the topic after the Wednesday performance.
“Especially with the election, and the events in Syria, it’s really one of those times where something like this is so relevant,” Bilsky said, while McCaig added, “Hopefully kids will go home and tell their parents about this.”
After the hometown performance, the group is slated to perform the play at Dramafest, in Fredericton, at the beginning of May.
The cost to attend the play at the St. Stephen Middle School Wednesday is by free will donation, Legge said.
The money donated goes toward the costs associated with participating in Dramafest.
“Hopefully we’ll have lots of people out to the community performance,” Legge said. “Dramafest is expensive, and we want to keep offering the chance for the kids to go, and this is a unique play that I think will speak to a lot of people in the community, so hopefully we can fill the auditorium.”
Who: St. Stephen Middle School drama club
What: Play about the Underground Railroad,
When: Wednesday, April 26 –
Grade 6/7: 5:30 p.m. Grade 7/8: 6:45 p.m.
Where: St. Stephen Middle School auditorium
Free will offering at door