The Upstate Institute welcomes award-winning playwright Kyle Bass to campus this year as the Gretchen Hoadley Burke ‘81 Endowed Chair for Regional Studies. Bass began his term as the Burke Chair with a public lecture on October 22 in Golden Auditorium that focused on the opening of his play Possessing Harriet at the Syracuse Stage.
Bass began his remarks to a packed Golden Auditorium by reading a powerful account of his personal journey with the project, which at times had the cadence of poetry. An audience of Colgate students, faculty and staff, and community members heard him speak from the head and the heart, as an intellectual engaged with histories and issues of identity, as a playwright who spent five years exploring and refining ways to convey Harriet’s narrative through language and dramaturgy, and as a black man deeply committed to his family roots, acknowledging the tensions of living in the present day while writing about a time so important to both past and present consciousness. In addition, Lucy Lavely and Nicole King , who portray Elizabeth Cady and Harriet Powell, performed a scene from the play.
In 1839, Harriet Powell, a young, mixed-race, enslaved woman slips away from a hotel in Syracuse, New York, and escapes from the Southerner who owns her. With the aid of a mysterious free black man named Thomas Leonard, Harriet finds temporary safe harbor in an attic room at the Peterboro home of impassioned abolitionist Gerrit Smith. With the slave catchers in pursuit, Harriet awaits her nighttime departure on the dangerous journey to Canada in the company of Smith’s young cousin Elizabeth Cady, an outspoken advocate for women’s equality. Confronted with new and difficult ideas about race, identity, and equality, and with confusion, fear, and desperation multiplying, Harriet is forced to the precipice of radical self-re-imagination and a reckoning with the heartrending cost of freedom. A world premiere by Kyle Bass, the Gretchen Hoadley Burke ‘81 Endowed Chair for Regional Studies and associate artistic director for Syracuse Stage, Possessing Harriet is directed by Tazewell Thompson and was commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Association.
On the following days, the Upstate Institute took over 250 students, faculty and community members to the October 23 and 24 performance of Possessing Harriet at they Syracuse Stage.