Cleveland Public Theatre’s ‘Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate’ is historic
In April of 2002 the diminutive (4’10”) 73 year old Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate took her first steps on a journey of 519 miles that began in Ripley, Ohio and ended at St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada as she walked across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State.
Her goal...to retrace the steps taken over 200 years ago by escaped slaves and their “conductors” on what was known as the Underground Railroad. Along the way, Joan would stop at known Underground Railroad sites, give talks at various schools and social organizations and stay in the homes of welcoming strangers who provided their own type of “safe houses” for her journey.
After her long and historic walk Joan was far from finished. On July 9, 2003 she gathered six women to her home to talk about the renovation of the historic Cozad-Bates House in University Circle (the last remaining known safe house in Cleveland). From this meeting “Restore Cleveland Hope” was formed and after speaking engagements at various churches, synagogues, schools, universities, ward meetings, neighborhood clubs, service organizations and city councils Ms. Southgate took another stroll in 2009.
This time the now 80 year old grandmother of nine trekked back from Canada (code name “Station Heaven”) to Cleveland (code name “Station Hope”) to complete the circle and raise money and awareness about the renovation project. The results has been the much needed renovations to the house and the establishment of the Underground Railroad Education and Resource Center at the 11508 Mayfield Road address.
Now another chapter has been added to Ms. Joan’s legacy as Cleveland Public Theatre has produced “The Absolutely Amazing And True Adventures Of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate.” Written by and starring Nina Domingue and directed by Nathan Henry. This 100 minute (with no intermission) show traces this remarkable woman’s amazing journey. Through the use of poetic prose, interpretative dance, letters from children, recollections of Joan’s childhood, video projections and of course walking we learn of the lifetime of motivation that made this walk a reality.
Joan Southgate was raised in a progressive household. Her grandmother had been a teacher (a very rare thing in those days), her mother knew the elder Harriet Tubman personally when she had been a little girl and her father was an artist. This upbringing encouraged Joan to seek out a living as a social worker in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was after she retired that Joan would take “an old lady stroll” of one mile a day for exercise. It was during one of these walks that she was inspired by a calling to honor her ancestors who had suffered and walked hundreds of miles to freedom from the South all the way to Canada and freedom during the times of the “Fugitive Slave Act” when escaped slaves anywhere in America could be recaptured and sent back to their masters. Thus after months of careful planning and support Joan set out on her own epic journey.
Nina Domingue is a true force of nature in the Cleveland theater scene who has been described as “...a young Anna Deavere Smith” and watching her is “a master class in acting.” These words ring especially true in this her newest work. Her writing and performing are poetic, her dancing well performed and on top of that she has an amazingly pleasant singing voice. The only small criticism that could be made was that at times the show lagged in tension but this is a matter of theatrical timing which I am sure will be rectified for future performances.
The lighting design by Josee Coyle is spot on as well as the set design of Cameron Caley Michalak that included a tiered living space as well as a stretch of roadway. Kenya R. Woods was the well suited choreographer and movement coach with Bill Ransom compositions adding to the story. Joe Burke’s projection designs also add much to the show. The sound design by Derek A. Graham could have been turned up a scoach as some of the dialogue was difficult to hear and understand.
We are still a country of heroes, some of who take the form of octogenarian grandmothers who decided to go for a walk. This is a story of one such hero whose story needs to be told and celebrated. Come see this show and become inspired. Who knows what you may one day be capable of doing?
“The Absolutely Amazing And True Adventures Of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate” will be on stage in the Gordon Square Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre located at 6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio through May 14, 2022. For more information and tickets go to https://www.cptonline.org/ or call (216) 631-2727 x501.