Okoye Returns to Oberlin with Harriet Tubman Opera

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

At the end of the opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, performed last Saturday in Finney Chapel, the audience rose in a standing ovation. Over the course of an hour, the show’s 10-member cast and chorus told the story of Tubman’s life, from her childhood of slavery to her work on the Underground Railroad.

“I see Harriet Tubman, going through time, as a very strong woman,” Conservatory junior Amber Monroe, who played the title character, said. “Even when she was young, her sisters were sold into slavery. Her masters beat her for whatever reason or left her in the cold until she got sick. There was one day … she decided to stand up for a running slave and in return, [his master] knocks her upside the head with an iron. When she wakes up from her coma, she starts seeing visions that she says she got from God. That inspired her to continue on … and do what she had to do.”

“When she was put on the auction block, she decided to run instead,” Monroe said. “And even though she had made it all the way to Philadelphia and was free, that foundation that she had inside of her said that she didn’t feel free until she got all of her family out, too. Even through all of her trials and tribulations, she still persevered and pushed through.” David Hughey, OC ’03, who played Tubman’s father as well as abolitionist William Still, emphasized how this opera presents Tubman as a whole person rather than a one-dimensional historical figure.

“I think that this opera will go down in history because this story hasn’t been told through this medium in this way,” he said. “I wish that more people knew the story of Harriet Tubman in a more real way — not just in the storybook way that those of us [who] know it, know it, but in a more immediate and practical way.” College first-year Sophia Bass, a member of the chorus, also spoke to the new light that this opera sheds on Tubman. “Participating in this opera was … a unique experience for me,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t experiencing Harriet through the pages of a book. Instead, I got to look into her eyes, hold her hands, listen to her voice. In a personal way, I was able to witness a living, breathing Harriet Tubman.”

This reflects the intent of the opera’s composer and librettist, Dr. Nkieru Okoye, OC ’92, who worked to present Tubman as a complex character in a fleshed-out environment.

“I did years of research on [Tubman] but also on what her life was like, which is very different than just researching her,” Okoye said. “I wanted to know all the different factors of her life — not just her Underground Railroad years, but just daily life, what it was like being on a plantation. I wanted to be able to identify with the experience … what it was like to be in an atmosphere where you can be bought or sold at any time. So I really submerged myself in that … by reading slave narratives and [biographies of her] and just as many sources as I could, so that the plantation would be believable. But then I also did research on AfricanAmerican folk forms. … I put many of them into the music [so that] it sounds like you’re there, with a little update. They didn’t have orchestras and that kind of thing, but I really wanted the music to represent her life.”

The opera is performed with a minimal set, consisting only of a ladder, two movable blocks and three folding screens. It is the music rather than any stage decoration that acts as the backdrop for this story.

“Unlike the traditional classical opera, the musical styles in Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom are heavily influenced by Black music,” Bass said. “The styles vary throughout the opera … from the Negro spirituals to the blues. The opera also contains elements of gospel, jazz and ragtime, and the perfect blend of all these styles makes Harriet Tubman a one-of-a-kind opera.”

The Oberlin and Cleveland performances of Harriet Tubman were staged in churches, a choice intended to honor Tubman and to add another dimension to the way the audience experienced her story.

“The opera comes out of AfricanAmerican culture,” Okoye said. “It’s got a lot of that folk music in it. [Performing in churches] is a great way to get the community to see what we do and bring it out to them.”

“I like the non-traditional concertgoers because they’re converts,” Okoye said. “They don’t know what we do in the Conservatory, and it does seem like another world. Non-traditional audiences are going to give the most visceral response. Harriet Tubman came from the Black church; she was very devout. So it just seems so appropriate that we would do this in churches.”

There was, however, another reason why performing the opera in Finney Chapel was important to Okoye. “I used to sit in Finney Chapel, and they had all these big acts,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal to realize that my music is now that act.”

Monroe emphasized the depth of the connection between the opera and Oberlin. “I find that [performing the opera in the Oberlin community] is like bringing it back to where it all began,” she said. “[Okoye] is an alum here, and [Harriet Tubman is being] performed by students that currently go here, and the person who is playing William Still and … Harriet’s father is also an alum. To bring [the opera] back home to where [Okoye] first wrote it seems right. And of course, Oberlin’s connection to the Underground Railroad is just mind blowing, how it all comes into play full circle. To have a group of African-American people — students, professionals, alumni — come together and put a production like this together … I saw it in Dessa Rose last year, but to see it in an opera is a bit different. I want to see stuff like this more often.”

At the core of Okoye’s production are the emotional connections between humans.

“[It] is a love story between two sisters,” she said. “It’s not an action opera or something else like that. It’s driven by this desperation for them to stay together.”