Page 1

Study Guide Contents

Director of Community Engagement & Education Joann Yarrow (315) 443-8603

Associate Director of Education Kate Laissle (315) 442-7755

3.) Production Information

Group Sales & Student Matinees Tracey White (315) 443-9844

Box Office (315) 443-3275

Written by Len Fonte

4.) Introduction 5.) Letter from the Community Engagement & Education Department 6.) About the Playwright 7.) Character 8.) About the Play 9.) Fair Fugitive - The Story of Harriet Powell and Her

Great Escape - Background

10.) The Harrowing Escape 12.) What happened after 13.) Projects 14.) Elements of Teaching Theatre 16.) Sources and Resources




Robert Hupp Artistic Director Jill A. Anderson Managing Director Kyle Bass Associate Artistic Director




Kyle Bass

Syracuse Stage Board of Trustees



Onondaga Historical Association PRESENTED BY

Gail Hamner & Daniel Bingham MEDIA SPONSORS

Nancy and Bill Byrne SCENIC DESIGNER




Donald Eastman

Carrie Robbins

Stephen Quandt

Fabian Obispo






Paul Huntley

Stuart Plymesser

Harriet Bass Casting

Robert Hupp

Jill A. Anderson

Kyle Bass

Artistic Director

Managing Director

Associate Artistic Director

October 17 - November 4, 2018


| 3



audience etiquette BE PROMPT Give your students plenty of time to arrive, find their seats, and get situated. Have them visit the restrooms before the show begins. RESPECT OTHERS Please remind your students that their behavior and responses affect the quality of the performance and the enjoyment of the production for the entire audience. Live theatre means the actors and the audience are in the same room, and just as the audience can see and hear the performers, the performers can see and hear the audience. Please ask your students to avoid disturbing those around them. Please no talking or unnecessary or disruptive movement during the performance. Also, please remind students that cellphones should be switched off completely. No texting or tweeting, please. When students give their full attention to the action on the stage, they will be rewarded with the best performance possible.



As you take your students on the exciting journey into the world of live theatre we hope that you’ll take a moment to help prepare them to make the most of their experience. Unlike movies or television, live theatre offers the thrill of unpredictability.

GOOD NOISE, BAD NOISE Instead of instructing students to remain totally silent, please discuss the difference between appropriate responses (laughter, applause, participation when requested) and inappropriate noise (talking, cell phones, etc).

With the actors present on stage, the audience response becomes an integral part of the performance and the overall experience: the more involved and attentive the audience, the better the show. Please remind your students that they play an important part in the success of the performance.

STAY WITH US Please do not leave or allow students to leave during the performance except in absolute emergencies. Again, reminding them to use the restrooms before the performance will help eliminate unnecessary disruption.


Dear Educator, The best way of learning is learning while you’re having fun. When you hear something you can forget it, but when you see something it stays with you forever. Live theatre provides the opporutnity for us to connect with more than just our own story, to find ourselves in other people’s lives, and grow beyond our own boundaries. We’re the only specices on the planet who makes stories. It is the stories that we leave behind that define us. Giving students the power to watch stories and create their own is part of our lasting impact on the world. We invite you and your students to engage with the stories we tell as a starting point for you and them to create their own. Sincerely, Joann Yarrow & Kate Laissle Community Engagement and Education

2018/2019 EDUCATIONAL OUTREACH SPONSORS Syracuse Stage is committed to providing students with rich theatre experiences that explore and examine what it is to be human. Research shows that children who participate in or are exposed to the arts show higher academic achievement, stronger self-esteem, and improved ability to plan and work toward a future goal. Many students in our community have their first taste of live theatre through Syracuse Stage’s outreach programs. Last season more than 15,500 students from across New York State attended or participated in the Bank of America Children’s Tour, artsEmerging, the Young Playwrights Festival, Backstory, Young Adult Council, and our Student Matinee Program. We gratefully acknowledge the corporations and foundations who support our commitment to in-depth arts education for our community.


| 5





Kyle Bass is a two-time recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (for fiction in 1998 and playwriting in 2010), a finalist for the Princess Grace Playwriting Award, and Pushcart Prize nominee. His other full-length plays include Tender Rain, The Faith of our Fathers, and Bleecker Street. Separated, a piece of documentary theatre about the student military veterans at Syracuse University was presented at Syracuse Stage and at the Paley Center in New York, directed by Robert Hupp. Kyle is the co-author (with Ping Chong) of Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, which had its world premiere at Syracuse Stage and was subsequently produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York City. Kyle’s one-act plays include Fall/Out, Theory of Night, Love is a Blue Velvet Box, Spoons, Northeast, and The Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion. Kyle has begun writing a new full-length play: Lakeview, which is set in a small city situated between a large university and a sacred but troubled body of water, and on the verge. As dramaturg, Kyle worked with acclaimed visual artist Carrie Mae Weems on her theatre piece Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, which had its world premiere at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, subsequently produced at Yale Rep and the Kennedy Center. As a screenwriter, Kyle is the co-author (with

his brother writer-director Kim Bass) of the original screenplay for the film Day of Days (Broad Green Pictures, 2017), which stars awardwinning veteran actor Tom Skerritt and Claudia Zevallos, and he is the author of the screenplay adaptation of the novel Milk by Darcy Steinke. Kyle has been commissioned by the Society for New Music to write the libretto for an opera based on the life and music of legendry folk singer and guitarist Libba Cotten. Kyle’s plays and other writings have appeared in the journals Callaloo, Folio, and Stone Canoe, among others, and in the essay anthology Alchemy of the Word:Writers Talk about Writing. He is drama editor for the journal Stone Canoe. Recently named Burke Endowed Chair for Regional Studies at Colgate University, Kyle has taught in the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Goddard College since 2006 and also teaches playwriting in Syracuse University’s Department of Drama, theatre courses in the Department of African American Studies, and has been guest lecturer in playwriting at Hobart & William Smith College. Kyle is creator and curator of Syracuse Stage’s Cold Read Festival of new plays, holds an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Goddard College, and is a proud member of the Dramatist Guild of America.


Characters GERRIT SMITH: A wealthy, white, abolitionist. He is fourty-two years old.

ELIZABETH CADY: The cousin of Gerrit Smith. She is twenty-four years old.

THOMAS LEONARD: A free black man living in Syracuse who helps Harriet excape. He is in his late thirties.

HARRIET POWELL: A fair skinned enslaved woman, she is mixed race and often mistaken for white. She is also twenty-four years old. SYRACUSE STAGE EDUCATION

| 7

About the Play Escape. In 1839 Central New York, a hotbed of abolitionist activity, a young enslaved woman by the name of Harriet Powell, in Syracuse with her owners, escaped through the actions of the Underground Railroad. At the home of Gerrit Smith, her last local safe house in Peterboro, Madison County, she met the young Elizabeth Cady, who would soon become Elizabeth Cady Stanton, famous for her work in the struggle for women’s rights, and who later recalled their conversation, “We all wept together as we talked, and when cousin Gerrit returned to summon us away, we needed no further education to make us earnest abolitionist.” Using historical facts as the background, Possessing Harriet imagines how that encounter might have gone.




My heart ran out of my chest. I said, [a whisper] “I can’t.” He said, “Yes, you can.” He said, “Freedom. I can help you get there.” A door opened in my mind and I fell through. I nodded my head. But hardly at all, I was so scared.

Fair Fugitive—The Story of Harriet Powell and Her Great Escape THE BACKGROUND The year was 1839 and the contentious debate over slavery in the United States was escalating toward the inevitable confrontation that culminated in the Civil War. New York had been a free state for only twelve years, abolishing the practice within its borders in 1827. The city of Syracuse had already established itself as an abolitionist stronghold, although it was still home to many who did not necessarily oppose the institution of slavery. The Underground Railroad was very active in Syracuse, where networks of safe houses and transportation routes funneled thousands of escaped slaves to freedom in Canada and relative safety under the protection of the British crown. It was in this environment that Harriet Powell found herself when she arrived in Syracuse on the first day of October in the company, and service, of the Davenports of Mississippi, the family that owned her. Harriet was born into slavery and the servitude of Judge Samuel Powell of Rogersville, Tennessee, around 1815. Her mother and younger sister were also enslaved to Judge Powell. Like many slaves of her generation, Harriet was termed a “quadroon,” meaning she was of one quarter African heritage. Harriet, along with her mother and sister, was sold by Judge Powell’s son, Thomas, who had orders from his father not to separate the three. The buyer was John Davenport, a powerful and wealthy planter in Mississippi. He paid the princely

sum of $1,400 for Harriet — a price that she ascribed to her skill at needlework. Though exceedingly bright, she was illiterate. She was a house slave for the Davenports, which meant that she was provided with certain “privileges” that were not generally attended to other slaves. She wore nice clothes, had a small collection of modest jewelry, and was allowed to bathe regularly. The Davenports came to Syracuse to visit friends and relatives, as Mrs Davenport was the daughter of Medad Curtis, a prominent lawyer who lived on Onondaga Hill. In order to be able to entertain in grand style, they took a suite of the finest rooms at the Syracuse House, the most fashionable hotel in the city. While in Syracuse, Harriet was witness to something that was certainly a novelty to a twentyfour year old woman who had known nothing but slavery in the South—the existence of free Blacks. One of those was Tom Leonard, who worked as a waiter in the Syracuse House, and who also happened to be a “station master” on the Underground Railroad. He quietly approached Harriet about helping her escape to freedom.

PHOTO: The Syracuse House

her the plan would not fail. He also pointed out that, although Davenport was rich, a simple change in fortune could easily send her back to the selling blocks. During her stay in Syracuse, Harriet was often mistaken for white. The incidents sparked sharp rebukes from Mrs.Davenport who quickly made it clear to anyone who made the innocent error that Harriet was black, and nothing more than a slave, a wench. The frequent episodes were embarrassing, and they provided Harriet with consistent reminders of her status. As the day of the Davenports’ departure neared, Harriet informed Tom that she had resolved to undertake the risk. The plan for her escape was quickly put into motion.

At first, she demurred, fearing disastrous consequences to her if the plan did not succeed and to her mother and sister if it did. Tom assured


| 9

The Harrowing Escape Tom Leonard immediately contacted the secretive abolitionists William Clarke, the deputy county clerk and John Owens, a marble dealer. Together they plotted Harriet’s flight to freedom.

house some distance from the Sheppard home for the remainder of the night before delivering her to the home of Clarke’s uncle, Dr. John Clarke, in Lebanon, Madison County in the morning.

A grand farewell party in honor of the Davenports was being organized for the seventh of October, the day before the family’s planned departure. It was to be held at the Washington Street home of Major William A.Cook. At the appointed hour, Harriet was too surreptitiously slip out of the back door where Tom Leonard and a horse drawn buggy, owned and driven by Mr. Abraham Nottingham, would be waiting nearby. Earlier, Tom was to have retrieved a bundle of Harriet’s belongings, tossed to him from a window of the Syracuse House by another black employee of the hotel. A safe house was selected and confirmed, where Harriet would stay until passage to Canada could be confirmed.

That evening, a meeting of local abolitionists was held at the First Congregationalist Church in Syracuse. During the gathering, William Clarke quietly went among the crowd soliciting for donations to “ship a bale of southern goods.” Mr. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist and civil rights activist was in attendance. Clarke approached him, Smith said, “Get her to my house and I will take care of the rest. He lived in Peterboro (named after his late father, Peter) in a spectacular mansion that served as the temporary home for countless runaways.

During the party, Harriet was on the second floor of Major Cook’s home, taking care of a baby belonging to one of the many guests. It is a tribute to Harriet’s character that she refused to leave the baby unattended. Taking an enormous risk, she brought the baby downstairs and asked Mrs. Davenport to hold it, explaining that she needed to step out for a moment. To avoid suspicion on the chilly night she left her bonnet and coat upstairs. Her mistress took the child without question as Harriet left the house and leapt into the waiting getaway buggy. As Mr. Nottingham induced the horses to full gallop, Harriet donned the disguise of a man’s hat and cloak. With “railroad speed,” Harriet was delivered to the home of a Mr. Sheppard in Marcellus. The next morning, Davenport published a newspaper article and posters advertising the unusually




steep reward of $200 for her capture. Considering that the average amount for such rewards at the time was about $30, the active participation in the hunt for Harriet was exceptionally large. The amount of the reward caused even those who were otherwise abolitionist sympathizers to become spies in search of any hint of her whereabouts. Tom Leonard was soon betrayed, likely by someone who saw him catch the bundle that was tossed from the hotel window, since he was arrested for stealing Harriet’s clothes. His deft dodging of the accusations and questions leveled by Davenport’s attorney resulted in his swift and complete acquittal. Harriet had been in the safety of Mr. Sheppard for almost a week before John Owen realized that he too had been betrayed. He engaged Mr. Nottingham once again to transport Harriet to another safe house that very night. Owens and Nottingham took her to another safe

PHOTO: Gerrit Smith

The Harrowing Escape (Continued) Later that day, after providing Harriet with a fine set of winter clothes, Smith put her in the care of his clerk, Federal Dana, who accompanied Harriet in Smith’s own carriage on the long journey to Cape Vincent where on October 29, 1839, she boarded a ferry to Kingston. Dana, as per Smith’s instructions, remained with Harriet until he witnessed her step off the boat onto British soil and into freedom.

-Adapted with permission from an article by Gregg Tripoli in OHA History Highlights


Concern that the Smith estate was under surveillance kept Harriet at Dr. Clarke’s for almost three weeks. During that time, Smith made the necessary arrangements for Harriet’s secure passage over Lake Ontario to Kingston, on Canada’s coast. Finally, on October 28, Gerrit Smith sent a messenger to say he was ready to receive Harriet. At the time, Smith was hosting his twentyfour-year old cousin, with whom he was very close. Her name was Elizabeth Cady, soon to become Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the most famous women’s rights activists in American history. An introduction ensued, and Smith left the young women, of the same age but very different backgrounds to become acquainted. Elizabeth Cady Stanton referred to that encounter in her famous 1898 memoir, Eighty Years and More, writing that, “The details of [Harriet’s] story I need not repeat. The fate of such girl is too well known to need rehearsal.” She further remarked that, after the conversation ended, “we need no further education to make us earnest abolitionists.”



| 11

What happened to the real people represented in Possessing Harriet after October 28, 1839? Gerrit Smith remained a dedicated abolitionist. He served in Congress for three terms and ran for President three times. At auction, he bought Abraham Lincoln’s only handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. He died in 1874 at the age of seventy-seven. Although his mansion no longer stands, what’s left of his home in Peterboro now houses the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Tom Leonard participated in the Jerry Rescue, and as an aftermath, fled with his wife to Canada for a while, then returned to Syracuse. When it appeared that slave catchers were planning to go to Canada to capture Harriet, he went to Kingston to warn her. At the beginning of the Civil War, he travelled to Massachusetts to enlist in the first Black Union regiment. He was not accepted because he was over seventy years old.

Harriet Powell remained in Kingston, Ontario for the rest of her life. Revered as “The Fair Fugitive,” she became a local celebrity because of her escape. She married Henry Kelly, a respected musician, and had eight children, five of whom survived her. She was visited by both Tom Leonard and William Clarke. Harriet died in 1860, and is buried in Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetery.

Elizabeth Cady married civil rights activist Henry Stanton and along with fellow New Yorker Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage was a major leader of the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. She wrote that her encounter with Harriet Powell galvanized her against the institution of slavery.

The Jerry Rescuse The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an unpopular law in many parts of the country, including Central New York, where many escaped slaves and free blacks lived. An early test of the law came in Syracuse in 1851, While a large abolitionist meeting was taking place, officials arrested Jerry, an escaped slave whose given name was William Henry. Both black and white Syracusans broke into the jail and rescued him. Jerry escaped to Canada. The incident was reported in newspapers across the country.

PHOTO: The Jerry Rescue monument in Syracuse on Clinton Square




Topics for classroom discussion and research: • • • • • • • •

Northern complicity in slavery. Black folks as active agents in the Abolitionist cause. Abolitionism and Christianity. The social strictures on women/wives/mothers in the 1830s. Fugitive slaves laws of the 1830s vs the 1850s. The Nat Turner Rebellion. Slave narratives. Sexual assault against the enslaved by their masters.


| 13

elements of drama PLOT

What is the story line? What happened before the play started? What do the characters want? What do they do to achieve their goals? What do they stand to gain/lose? THEME

What ideas are wrestled with in the play? What questions does the play pose? Does it present an opinion? CHARACTER

Who are the people in the story? What are their relationships? Why do they do what they do? How does age/status/etc. affect them? LANGUAGE

What do the characters say? How do they say it? When do they say it? MUSIC

How do music and sound help to tell the story? SPECTACLE

How do the elements come together to create the whole performance?

Other Elements: Conflict/Resolution, Action, Improvisation, Non-verbal communication, Staging, Humor, Realism and other styles, Metaphor, Language, Tone, Pattern & Repetition, Emotion, Point of view.




Any piece of theatre comprises multiple art forms. As you explore this production with your students, examine the use of:



At its core, drama is about characters working toward goals and overcoming obstacles. Ask students to use their bodies and voices to create characters who are: very old, very young, very strong, very weak, very tired, very energetic, very cold, very warm. Have their characters interact with others. Give them an objective to fulfill despite environmental obstacles. Later, recap by asking how these obstacles affected their characters and the pursuit of their objectives.


How are each of these art forms used in this production? Why are they used? How do they help to tell the story?

elements of design LINE can have length, width, texture, direction, and

curve. There are five basic varieties: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, and zig-zag.

SHAPE is two-dimensional and encloses space.

It can be geometric (e.g. squares and circles), man-made, or free-form.

FORM is three-dimensional. It encloses space

and fills space. It can be geometric (e.g. cubes and cylinders), man-made, or free-form.

COLOR has three basic properties:

HUE is the name of the color (e.g. red, blue, green), INTENSITY is the strength of the color (bright or dull), VALUE is the range of lightness to darkness.

TEXTURE refers to the “feel” of an

object’s surface. It can be smooth, rough, soft, etc. Textures may be ACTUAL (able to be felt) or IMPLIED (suggested visually through the artist’s technique).

SPACE is defined and determined

by shapes and forms. Positive space is enclosed by shapes and forms, while negative space exists around them.


| 15

SOURCES AND RESOURCES: Onondaga Historical Association exists to inspire people’s understanding that the history we share as a community is the foundation for our future together. Our purpose is to educate and to encourage the exploration, appreciation, and utilization of the past in order to add value throughout our community and bring the great stories of Onondaga County’s history to a worldwide audience. Possessing Harriet was commissioned by Onondaga Historical Association (OHA). On why OHA asked Kyle Bass to write the play, executive director Gregg Tripoli said the following: “I chose Kyle Bass because he has such a deep appreciation and love of language. I have read everything Kyle has written and I am consistently impressed with Kyle’s ability to tell stories, so I knew I would fall in love with this particular part of the story if Kyle wrote it. Having researched the story and journey of Harriet Powell myself, I felt this format allowed the audience to better connect with the drama as it unfolded. Further, I chose this format because it opens OHA up to a new audience of theatre goers and because this story (like so many of our stories) is inherently dramatic and theatrical. The stage is a great way to bring history to life, and the ability to build upon a collaboration with a local writer and theatre made it an opportunity too good to pass up. OHA also sees this as a way to provide earned revenue for our organization, to support a local artist, and to provide excellent content for Syracuse Stage. We would have chosen Stage if we could have, but, actually, Stage chose the play for the 2018-2019 season (we are just lucky, and thankful, that they did).” Guided tours of the Onondaga Historical Museum, located at 321 Montgomery Street in downtown Syracuse, are available by appointment by contacting Scott Peal at or 315-428-1864 x317. At their downtown museum, you can view their award winning exhibit, Freedom Bound: Syracuse and the Underground Railroad. This exhibit focuses on the history of anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity in Onondaga County. The installation features three of the seven carved faces recovered from the basement of Syracuse’s 1846 Wesleyan Methodist Church and personalizes the story of the Underground Railroad while educating visitors about slavery, abolitionism, tolerance, and the meaning of freedom. Teachers can also conduct research the OHA Research Center located in the same building. Contact Sarah Kozma to learn how you can add local history to your class - - 315-428-1864 x325. Barker, Gordon S. Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution: Eight Cases, McFarland and Company Inc. 2013.




“Black History in Kingston,” Digital Kingston. Accessed 28 August, 2018. Campbell, Stanley W. Slave Catchers, Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act 1850-1860, University of North Carolina Press, 1968. Eisenstadt, Marnie. “When women’s paths crossed, it was a turning point for both,” Syracuse Post-Standard, April 15, 2018. A look at the encounter between Powell and Cady, as well as an introduction to Possessing Harriet. Ennis, Rex.“Underground Railroad Station on Grindstone” Thousand Island, October 13, 2013. A view of the Underground Railroad from the Canadian perspective. “Harriet Powell’s Escape from Slavery,” The Circle Association’s African American 1830 to 1865, History University of Buffalo Department of Mathematics. Accessed September 2, 2018. Potrikus, Alaina, “Harriet Powell:Abolitionists helped slaves wend way to freedom,” Syracuse Post-Standard, February 23 2005 (updated January 31 2012. “Site of Thomas and Jane Leonard House,” Census, city directory, and newspaper accounts of the Leonards in Syracuse Accessed September 4 2018. Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations. Routledge, 2015. “That Laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason,” Syracuse and the Underground Railroad, Special Collections Research Center Syracuse University Library. Online exhibition of documents. Last revised 9 June, 2012. “Thomas and Jane Leonard,” History, University of Buffalo Department of Mathematics. An account of the Leonards and Underground Railroad activity in Syracuse, including Thomas’s obituary. Accessed September 4, 2018. “Thomas and Jane Leonard of Syracuse” The Circle Association’s African American 1830 to 1865, Includes an obituary of Tom Leonard from 1877. History University of Buffalo Department of Mathematics. Accessed 4 September, 2018. Tripoli, Gregg, “Fair Fugitive—The Story of Harriet Powel and Her Great Escape,” OHA History Highlights Spring/Summer 2016, pp. 40-44. SYRACUSE STAGE EDUCATION

| 17

“Jerry Rescue,” The Circle Association’s African American 1830 to 1865, History University of Buffalo Department of Mathematics. Accessed 4 September, 2018. “Harriet Powell and Henry Kelly House,” Stones Kingston. Stones is a website highlighting historical sites in Kingston, Ontario, with maps and insightful commentary. This page highlights the home of Harriet Powell and her husband, as well as the abode of the rescued Jerry. Accessed 5 September, 2018. “Harriet Powell Collection,” Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center houses a Harriet Powell collection containing several original documents. This page is the inventory. Accessed 23 August 2018.





| 19