Playwright Tells Harriet Jacobs True Story

PENOBSCOT — Easily the darkest chapter in U.S. history, slavery was abolished nearly 150 years ago, but issues related to slavery are as timely as ever.

In her play “Hatty,” Penobscot writer Bundy Boit demonstrates that those issues are not only timeless, but they also transcend race and gender.

A play with music in two acts, “Hatty” is based on the life and times of Harriet Jacobs, whose book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was published in 1861.

Slavery was still legally practiced in the United States, and, afraid of potential repercussions against her family, Jacobs published under a pseudonym.

In 1987, Jean Yellin published a new edition of Jacobs’ book following extensive research that corroborated the original story and identified the actual people portrayed in the book.

Boit said that as she started reading the book, passages repeatedly inspired songs.

“Oh, here’s a song,” she said. “Here’s a good place for a song,” and so on. “I was just so struck by her courageous story.”

Born into slavery in Edenton, N.C., Jacobs was literally the property of a small child who had inherited her.

The girl’s father, Doctor-master as the slaves called him, wanted Jacobs for a concubine and began harassing her when she was 15, a relentless pursuit that would continue well into her adult life.

“The purpose of her book was to tell the true tale of slavery and what it’s like for a woman,” Boit said. “She wanted to tell the Northern abolitionist women what slavery is like.”

In an attempt to end Doctor-master’s harassment, Jacobs had two children by a white neighbor. The ploy did nothing to dissuade the slave-owner’s harassment, and Jacobs hid in a cramped attic crawl space in her grandmother’s home for seven years.

Separated from her children, she was able to see them only through little peepholes within the tight confinement of her attic prison.

In 1842, Jacobs escaped to the North, but again went into hiding because the family of her owner kept looking for her.

After several plot twists, all based on Jacobs’ true story, Hatty eventually wins her freedom and is reunited with her children.

“One thing that comes out in the play is a desire to control another human, which is anathema to me, and that you can control your own life,” Boit said. “Hatty did that while in the crawl space. It’s really about control and control of your own destiny. That is really important and something so many people need to be reminded of today.”

While control of others and self-control of one’s destiny emerge as universal themes, Boit emphasizes that the play “is a woman’s story.”

Boit masterfully employs various dramatic devices in “Hatty.”

For instance, the drama on stage is often reinforced by photos of actual slaves projected at the rear of the stage.

She also employs a voiceover technique in which actual passages from “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” are read while a lit photo of Jacobs is seen on an otherwise dark stage.

The original songs and lyrics written by Boit also serve to move the story along and to reinforce themes inherent in the play and the book by Jacobs.

Boit’s original play with music has received attention, and the author and others hope a full production of the work is done in 2013, marking 200 years since Jacobs’ birth and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Boit said she and Aynne Ames of the Belfast Maskers are seeking grants and other funding sources to produce “Hatty” next year.

Ames directed two readings of the play with the Belfast Maskers last month. In 1999, Kevin Brown of Waldo Theatre in Waldoboro directed a staged reading of the play, and Bill Raiten of New Surry Theatre directed a staged reading of two scenes from the play in 2011.

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James Straub

Reporter at Ellsworth American
Former Ellsworth American reporter James Straub covered the towns on Deer Isle and the Blue Hill Peninsula. He lives in Brooklin.