HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — One Harrisburg theater company is uncovering the stories of the city’s past, focusing on the influence of African-Americans.
Sankofa African American Theatre Company is performing a play celebrating the city’s Old Eighth Ward and the forgotten figures who shaped it. The actors are both narrators and characters, taking the audience back to the neighborhood in the 1800s.
“[It was] one of the largest concentrations of Black homeowners, business owners, advocates, abolitionists,” said Sharia Benn, who wrote and directs the play.
Benn also heads the Sankofa African American Theatre Company. She said the Eighth Ward was a gateway for many, serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“Joseph and Sarah Bustill, they were abolitionists…and responsible for spiriting almost 1,000 freedom seekers further north,” Benn said of two of the characters in her play.
Benn wrote this play, called Voices of the Eighth Chronicles II, to weave together the stories of people like the Bustills, people largely forgotten after the Eighth Ward was demolished so the Capitol Complex could expand.
“Those people pushed out, they lost their homes, their businesses, their ability to pass on their wealth to their generations,” Benn said.
The process has been an education for the actors too.
“Right now, I’m dressed up as William Howard Day, who I didn’t learn about until rehearsals for this show,” actor James Mitchell said.
Sydney Crutcher, a core company member at Gamut Theatre, which is hosting the play, said, “We’re really bringing to life people that maybe nobody has heard of, and I think that for me is really fun because I get to kind of breathe new life into someone who deserves to be acknowledged.”
Benn also hopes she can educate young people. Sankofa has partnered with the Dauphin County Commissioners to hold free performances for students.
“I love that the young people are just sitting there and they are into it, and they are even articulating, ‘Wow I didn’t know that. Whoa these people were black?'” Benn said.
Together, Benn, her actors and their partners in Dauphin County want to inspire the next generation.
“It would be my goal, 50 years from now, that one of the kids or multiple individuals from this production will actually come forward and be the next barrier breaker,” Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick said.
Armed with knowledge of their history, young people can continue to fight for what their ancestors in the Eighth Ward worked for — justice.
“I would hope after they see the production, they’re able to understand the progress that has been made but also leave with the understanding that there is still work to be done,” actor Latreshia Lilly said. “If you leave knowing that, then I think America has a chance.”
Benn said, “My call to action is now that you know, what are you going to do to make it better?”
Sankofa is holding two more performances at Gamut Theatre on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. For more information and to get tickets, visit Gamut Theatre’s website.