Harriet Tubman’s role in helping hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad has long failed to receive the attention it deserves.
Young People’s Theatre (YPT) is doing its part to remedy that with a staging of The Power of Harriet T! as part of its Black History Month programming.
The play depicts the story of Tubman, who escaped slavery at 29, yet risked her freedom to transport more than 300 other slaves from the American south to the north and to Canada.
The play features a strong cast that includes Cabbagetown resident Matthew Murray and Michael Blake, who also called Cabbagetown home until a couple of months ago.
The actors play Man One and Man Two, respectively, and those roles pose more than a few challenges as both actors are forced to play a variety of different characters.
“I play Harriet’s overseer, a slave master, a few slaves, a slave catcher,” Murray said. “The toughest is probably the slave master because the character is very proper so I have to stop from falling into my own habits.”
The Detroit-born Murray came to Toronto at the urging of his high school acting teacher, who saw talent in the young man.
“My high school was not big on acting at all,” he said. “I didn’t even know you could pursue acting (as a career) until my acting teacher told me to get out of Detroit and go to L.A., New York or Toronto.”
From there, he studied acting at Humber College and has been working in theatre, film and television ever since.
Blake also plays a variety of roles, including turns as slave catchers, slaves and an abolitionist who teaches Tubman about the abolitionist movement.
A longtime veteran of the theatre scene, his upcoming stint on the YPT stage will serve as a return to his roots.
“YPT is where I got my first equity card in theatre performing in a production of Jacob Two-Two many, many moons ago,” he said. “I even saw my first play in this theatre when I was probably about seven.”
Both actors said they are excited at the prospect of sharing Tubman’s story with young audiences, with Blake noting her story rarely gets the treatment it deserves and is even overlooked in the school system.
“The story of Harriet Tubman should be part of the curriculum,” he said. “Kids should know the story of this powerful woman.”
For Murray, the play marks yet another step in a burgeoning career that has seen him perform previous shows at YPT, with Obsidian Theatre, and appear in TV series such as the L.A. Complex, Suits and The Firm and perform in the movie The Junction.
Blake, meanwhile, considers himself fortunate he is on a break from his current gig in Stratford and is able to take part in the show. The National Theatre School graduate was part of cast for the original Degrassi Junior High TV series and has toured the country with Soulpepper and other companies.
The Power of Harriet T! will run from Feb. 4 to 22 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. E. For tickets or information, call 416-862-2222 or visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca