By James Pouliot
---- — The Actors Studio of Newburyport is celebrating Women’s History Month with a special production this Saturday.
African-American actress and playwright Kimberly Wilson’s “A Journey ...” is a one-woman show about black women’s history, culture and faith.
Produced, written and performed entirely by Wilson, “A Journey ...” explores the lives of seven women, from 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman to modern-day author and poet Maya Angelou.
Each character — or “spirit,” as Wilson calls them — speaks through Wilson about their individual stories and struggles, and the courage it took to fight against oppression.
“It brings us to a place where we celebrate African-American women and Black History Month, but we also celebrate people of courage and the opportunity to share our stories,” Wilson said. “Women, we are champions for so much. So much of our role of survival and success in our history is understated, the role of women’s contributions. The more we have an opportunity to share it, the more people understand that women are very important.”
The show opens with opulence and fanfare: Wilson is an African queen. Hailing from an unspecified tribe, she begins on a note of pride.
“You know how we African-Americans have been stereotyped,” Wilson said. “Thugs, low-class, not intelligent, stupid, not having a sense of family, a sense of self. ... I wanted to start from a sense of royalty and regality, a sense of family, of home ownership, meaning the homeland.
“Then, how strongly violent, and how you can be raped from your culture — not just raped in your body — raped from your culture and your homeland. And still, here we are, standing, succeeding, generations and generations, not removed but celebrated.”
One message resonates throughout the piece: hope. Despite creating a piece centered around centuries of oppression, violence and slavery, Wilson is optimistic.
“I can go and sing a spiritual, sing it from my heart,” she said. “And as soon as I’m singing, I might call up the spirit of Harriet or a slave or the person who didn’t make it on those slave ships. ... Here I am, standing here, I’m 54 years old, living in Westport, Conn., free and able to walk freely. That’s a celebration.”
Wilson has been performing “A Journey ...” for six years, but the idea was born about 15 years ago, when she was working at Hurlbutt Elementary School in Weston, Conn. Her sister, also a Weston teacher, noticed that there was no program for African-American teaching and asked Wilson to put a show together.
Wilson started researching the civil rights movement and other African-American history. She teamed up with a friend to write what she describes as “a black history through music,” with songs ranging from spirituals to ragtime to modern-day rhythm and blues.
Realizing that she couldn’t travel with a friend and piano to boot, Wilson created a show that she could do with nothing but her voice, an audience and a stack of costumes.
“I tried to design something that I could self-produce,” she said. “I could go into schools and communities, and I could celebrate our story, the story through me, and be able to do my craft as an actress and singer.”
After much evolution, rewriting and rebranding, Wilson arrived at her current one-woman show.
Being the only member of the production has its advantages: Every show is different, as Wilson feels one “spirit” or another more strongly, or moves around verses in the old spirituals that make up the transitions.
“Last weekend, Maya just came out, spoke forth!” she said. “Harriet Tubman, her spirit was just jamming, that energy! ... The audience feedback as the play is going on, that give-and-take of live theater, that helps the spirit grow and move and celebrate.”
Wilson has produced “A Journey ...” everywhere from New York to her hometown of Minneapolis. But most of her performances take place in the churches, schools and children’s clubs of Connecticut.
Newburyport’s show comes courtesy of a mutual friend, she said, actor Jack Rushton, who connected her with The Actors Studio and with Peabody’s Brooksby Village retirement community, where she will offer another performance.
The event is part of a long tradition of Women’s History Month events at The Actors Studio, according to Executive Director Marc Clopton.
On March 22, the studio will screen a documentary called “For the Next Seven Generations,” which follows 13 indigenous grandmothers from 13 nations coming together to spread the word of “stewardship of the Earth,” Clopton said. The film will be followed by a “talkback” session with a woman who builds sacred rattles and drums.
Like “A Journey ...,” past events have often included an element of February’s Black History Month, including African-American storyteller Valerie Tutson’s “Brave Women — Bold Moves, Black Women of Strength and Courage.”
Clopton looks forward to another opportunity to showcase diversity in Newburyport.
“Certainly, our community is becoming more diverse,” he said. “And the issues around diversity and tolerance exist everywhere. This is a chance to give people a glimpse of some of the great African-American women of history.”
If you go
What: “A Journey ...” by Kimberly Wilson
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: The Actors Studio of Newburyport, The Tannery Marketplace, 50 Water St., Mill 1, Suite 5
How much: $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and students. Tickets available at www.newburyportacting.org or 978-465-1229.