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Historical Truth

Actress Alisa Harris portrays powerful crusader in A Woman Called Truth

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-06-10


By all accounts, Sojourner Truth cut an incredibly charismatic and powerful figure. Born into slavery in Swartekill, New York in 1797, Truth went on to become one of the most prominent abolitionists and women’s rights crusaders in the 1800s. She supposedly stood nearly 6’ tall and possessed a deep, resonant voice that, while not especially loud, seemed to command attention, and her speeches and lectures brought her the attention of the era’s most powerful figures, including Abraham Lincoln.

Truth’s long and complicated journey is the subject of the Civic Theater’s A Woman Called Truth, which runs at the Allen County Public Library from June 6 through the 22. And the task of bringing this remarkable woman to life falls to actress Alisa Harris. “I had to do a lot of soul-searching with her, because I did not want to mess her up,” Harris says. “Even though I don’t have her voice, I wanted to depict the strength she had, the impact she made with her speeches.”

Originally from Louisville, Harris moved to Fort Wayne about three years ago. She says acting is in her blood; she was very active in theater in Louisville and southern Indiana, but A Woman Called Truth is only Harris’ second appearance on a Fort Wayne stage. Family and other daily commitments make it difficult to act as much as she would like, but A Woman Called Truth peaked her interest. She wasn’t familiar with the play, but she did know about Sojourner Truth and her impact on history. “I love theater, but I especially have a passion for anything that has to do with women, or African-American women,” Harris says. “I just wanted to be a part of something like that.”

A Woman Called Truth is almost a monologue, incorporating some of Truth’s own words from her speeches and biography, as well as spirituals and folk songs from the 1800s. “(The play) is mostly a narrative,” Harris explains. “It’s just her speaking. And you have people coming almost out of the shadows— some of them speak, some of them sing — and then we take a leap into the past. It’s like you’re going into her mind, going into her past, and that’s what these people are doing is taking the audience back with her.”

Harris says she hasn’t had a lead role in a play for a long time — she was encouraged to take on the part by director Renae Butler, who had worked with Harris on Little Foxes at the Presbyterian Theater two years ago — and she’s “never had this much to say” on stage. But for her, the difficulty of the part isn’t necessarily the sheer volume of lines; it’s keeping the focus on Sojourner Truth and the important role she played in history. “I don’t want to lose her,” Harris says. “I want people to see her and know who she is and understand who she is.”

“I think the appeal of her and her story was that she such a strong woman, she was such a force,” Harris continues. “She couldn’t read or write, but she made such an impact on history. I think that’s what people like to see. We like to see that a woman can be strong. Even though she couldn’t read or write, she hung out with the intellects, the educated, and had a presence in the lives of people. Even if some people didn’t like her, they remembered her.”

Sojourner Truth’s story is fascinating, horrifying in some parts and inspiring in others. Though Truth died in 1883, the way her words cut through the political and social cant of her day make the speeches she gave seem years ahead of their time. But that’s only part of the reason Truth’s work still resonates today. “It’s something that never dies,” Harris says. “She even says ‘so much done, so much to do.’ It still is the same. There’s a lot that’s been done, but there’s still so much to do, for women’s rights, for black’s rights, for minorities… it still needs to be done.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre “Off Main” presents A Woman Called Truth
Friday and Saturday, June 6 and 7 at 8 pm; Sunday June 8 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday, June 13 and 14 at 8 pm; Sunday June 15 at 2 pm
Friday and Saturday June 20 and 21 at 8 pm; Sunday June 22 at 2 pm.
Allen County Public Library

Tickets: $15 adults; $10 ages 23 and under; $12 seniors and Sunday matinees

Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: www.fwcivic.org

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