by Orissa Arend
Harry and the Thief, recently staged at the Contemporary Arts Center, is science fiction, historical drama, and comedic farce. Mimi (Te’Era Coleman), a professional thief, is convinced by her cousin Jeremy to go back to 1863 in his brand-new time machine and wreak havoc on history by providing Harriet Tubman (Samantha Beaulieu) with a cache of modern high-powered weapons. The NOLA project, now in its 15th season, describes the play as possibly its boldest production to date.
Says Sigrid Gilmer, the play’s brilliant author: “In writing Harry and the Thief I wanted to create something funny and exciting that pulled from our collective stories around Harriet Tubman, slavery and heroism, then twist them in a way that was surprising, thought provoking, and hilarious while at the same time paying tribute to the courage and sheer bad-assery of Tubman and Americans who were held in captivity.” She describes her genre blending plays as, “black comedies that are historically bent, totally perverse, joyfully irreverent, and are concerned with issues of identity, pop culture, and contemporary American society.”
What Gilmer knew about Tubman was that she carried a gun with her and that when people traveling North with her would lose their nerve, she would tell them, “You’re gonna be free or you’re gonna be dead.” That triggered for Gilmer action sequences, songs, and hilarious physical contortions of actors. Even the villains, the slave owners, are funny – caricatures of incompetence and a perverse sense of who they are. Then there is baby “what’s its name,” the blue-eyed progeny of a mother who was raped.
Gilmer invites the audience to play, acknowledging that SHE is playing with the subject matter. Time is warped. The past and the present transform each other. “Let’s pretend,” she invites us, making the audience complicit.
Gilmer: “Why are all stories about people of color always tragic, tragic stories? There’s a set frame around suffering. The play butts up against that and says, ‘We can still tell this story and these people can be happy and have agency and joy.’” She doesn’t frame the horrible historical stuff in a way that makes people tragic. “Being born into a situation that is fucked up and tragic is different from being fucked up and tragic because of a situation,” says Gilmer. What a profound shift! It goes beyond not blaming the victim. The play redefines victim-hood itself. And the audience barely notices because of the laughter and fast-paced action. To add to the merriment, the run-away slaves are named after the Jolie-Pitt kids.
The play puts to rest the idea that the white male perspective is somehow universal. This is history imagined from quite another point of view. It flips the script that the past determines the present and the future. Gilmer will not let the past be white-washed and sublimated. The first step toward healing is memory, acknowledgment, and a reckoning of some sort. The next step, which Gilmer so adroitly takes, is to re-imagine past, present, and future with a fluidity that transforms all three.