Created by Khari Wendell McClelland and Andrew Kushnir, with Jodie Martinson. Directed by Andrew Kushnir. A Project: Humanity and UrbanInk Productions presentation. At the BMO Theatre Centre on Saturday, October 7. Continues until October 18
Between 1834 and 1860, an estimated 30,000 escaped American slaves made their way along the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.
One of these was Kizzy, the great-great-great-grandmother and “mythological matriarch” of Detroit-raised, Vancouver-based singer, actor, and Freedom Singer cocreator Khari Wendell McClelland.
A neglected period in the country’s past—introduced to some through a cringeworthy Heritage Moment broadcast on 1980s Canadian television, eye-rollingly re-created here to great comedic effect—Freedom Singer bills itself as the untold history of the Underground Railroad as expressed through the music that accompanied the escaped slaves on their journey.
Kizzy escaped to southern Ontario, had two children with a British man, and lost her legs to frostbite because she was forced to sleep in the barn. When the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, a legless Kizzy and her two children returned to Detroit. It’s such a terrific story you want to know more. Well, that’s all there is.
Nothing else of Kizzy’s life has survived in family lore, and blessed little of the escaped slaves’ music has either. This was glaringly apparent in 2015 when McClelland and the CBC’s Jodie Martinson travelled across Canada from Halifax to Amherstburg, Ontario’s Freedom Museum, in a fruitless search for both. The lack of source material is just as disappointing on-stage. A musical record of the Underground Railroad, Freedom Singer is not.
Freedom Singer is more about McClelland’s desire to uncover a forgotten past, and the result, from a narrative standpoint, is disappointing. With so little in the way of primary sources, it’s puzzling that McClelland and cocreator and director Andrew Kushnir went the documentary-theatre route with Freedom Singer.
The strongest moment comes, unsurprisingly, from the lone contemporary source: a recording of a 1940s interview with an escaped slave who croakingly sings a few bars of a song he remembers. McClelland, guitarist Noah Walker, and soul singer Tanika Charles take those cracked notes and build them into a haunting re-creation, complete with updated lyrics that transform “No more auction block for me” into “No more crooked cops for me,” reflecting how little ground has been gained in the past 150 years. Even in Canada.
It’s also the only time you’ll hear an actual song from the period performed in a show about songs from the period. Otherwise, McClelland sings either found lyrics from the era set to his own melodies or original compositions. Freedom Singer feels a bit like a bait-and-switch from the tag line “a rare musical journey through the history of the Underground Railroad”.
Despite its shortcomings, McClelland is a strong, albeit studiously unrehearsed, storyteller with a terrific soul tenor voice. He and fellow vocalist Charles harmonize fluidly and effortlessly, their voices overcoming an earnestness in the show’s delivery that, at times, comes across as heavy-handed or cloying.
While it doesn’t always succeed in its stated mission to give voice to the voiceless, Freedom Singer still hits a few good notes.