I BRIEFLY met Sigrid at the Katselas Theatre Company’s Playlab, of which we are both members. But I feel like I REALLY met her when I watch Harry & The Thief, an action film/historical/time travel play about Harriet Tubman. I walked in not knowing much about the show and I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was SO audacious, I thought, so gutsy to do a comedy about Harriet Tubman, to throw in time travel, to have big bold moments of humor. Sigrid was smashing these genres together and it was working so well for me. I was having such a good time. This is why I asked her to write a guest blog for me. Genre mashing has been something I’ve been thinking about for sometime, and I was curious how Sigrid approached it. This is what she had to say. (Oh, and after you read it, if you’re in LA, go see the play.)
Harry & The Thief & Me
by Sigrid Gilmer
The following all peacefully co-exist and connect in my mind: Harriet Tubman, REO Speedwagon, Bruce Willis, History of the World Part 1, George Michael, 19th Century U.S.History-slavery, the “wild west”, Will and Ariel Durant, Twelve Monkeys and Time Bandits, The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Kenneth Burke, Debbie Gibson, Value Books Christian biographies, Bay and Buckheimer action movies, John Jakes’ North & South, The Humpty Dance, Gone with the Wind, heavy metal and stoner rock, Band of Angels, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Roots.
When I set out to write Harry & the Thief my intention was to create an action movie onstage. An action movie about Harriet Tubman. When I told people this idea I usually got one of two reactions. Laughter or puzzlement tinged with fear. The laughter I didn’t mind, funny is always good, but the puzzlement, frankly puzzled me. If you know anything about Harriet Tubman, even if it is only the grade school black history month version, you know that she walked hundreds of enslaved people to freedom. At a time when the movement of women and black folks was-to grossly understate it-restricted.
And the punishment for getting caught was, if you were lucky death, if you were not torture, mutilation and most likely separation from loved ones. And, oh yeah, you were still enslaved. Harriet Tubman was also known to carry a gun and would inspire frightened folks ﬂeeing to freedom with the phrase: “You are gonna be free or dead.”
Come on! That is bad-assness on a level Buckheimer, Bay and Willis can only dream of.
So why was the idea of an action play about Tubman so shocking?
Then I started to think about history and story telling; Who gets the be the hero of stories and history? Who gets to say what is true, historically accurate or narratively right? Well, if you look at the vast amounts of storytelling and history media Black Chicks aren’t really at the helm. If they were maybe Phyllis Wheatley and Audre Lorde would get quoted as frequently as Whitman and Ginsberg, not that a lot of poetry get’s quoted nowadays. (Sigh.) Shirley Chisholm and Thomas Paine would be mentioned in the same breath as examples of patriots and radicals of democratic ideals. And like the Batman franchise, Harriet Tubman action ﬁlms would be rebooted every generation by ﬁlm makers eager to leave their mark on the timeless classic. Shirley Hemphill would star in the 70’s TV series, based on the ﬁrst ﬁlm. (Cuz that’s what’s happening.) I could have gone on and on mining the vast pit of injustice but it is more fun to write a play. So I decided a write the play that I would want to see, ﬁlled with all the things that I love and inspire me (See list at the top of the page.) without regards to historical accuracy, narrative dictums, cultural or social sensitivity.
Thus, Harry & the Thief a comedy about a thief who is blackmailed into traveling back in time to deliver a cache of arms to Harriet Tubman. Yes, it is a comedy about slavery. Just a bit about that. As Captain Obvious once said: race and slavery is as American as apple pie and hamburgers. It is also the heaviest of subjects weighted down with rage, guilt, indignation and shame. A sure ﬁre shut down to any dinner party conversation.
Sig’s social hint # 76: to free yourself from an awkward social encounter, tell whomever you are speaking with that you are having a genetic ﬂash back of a vicious whipping given to you by Master Scarlet and that you have to excuse yourself. I encourage all ethnic and racial groups to use this social escape hatch, special encouragement to Asian and Latino readers, cuz if you say that, you will totally freak people out.
Back to slavery and humor, I have a little saying: What will make you laugh will make you cry. Even a cursory investigation into 19th Century American Slavery is enough to make one ball up and weep at man’s inhumanity to man so I ﬁgured there was laughs to be mined in writing Harry. Earnest, serious, contemplative and sentimental representations of American slavery are important and have a vital place in the cannon. But, people like to laugh. Frankly, I think America needs a good long, heart opening, tummy hurting, tears streaming down our faces laugh about slavery. It certainly was healing for me to have to think about what was funny-which for me as a writer and fan of comedy always reads human-about chattel slavery. In writing the play I came to the conclusion that…(Cue the steady beat of a military snare drums and a choir softly humming America the Beautiful) As Americans, we can reconcile our jaded history, the absurdly painful, ridiculously cruel things we have done to one and other. If we stand together and look our history square in the face and give it a Three Stooges poke in the eye, hit it with a cream pie, while holding a rubber chicken and slipping on a banana peel.
Earlier, I lamented that people are not quoting poetry enough, so I am gonna be the change I wanna see in the world and leave you with a poem by Charles Bukowski. For me it summons up my process and approach in creating Harry & the Thief:
shot to hell,
all these small faces
beautiful and believing;
i wish to weep
but sorrow is
I wish to believe
but belief is a
we have narrowed it down to
the butcherknife and the
Harry & the Thief plays for one last weekend September 8th @ 8pm and September 9th @ 7pm, at the Skylight Theatre. (For tickets and info http://www.katselastheatre.com/)
Come and watch the sickening talented cast eviscerate history and the action movie and mock their bleeding corpses. It’s a good ole time!
Writing from a place that believes in the alchemy of live bodies on stage, Sigrid Gilmer’s plays are dark, funny, personal musings and perversions of cultural norms that joyfully give the finger to the status quo. Her plays include: Harry & the Thief, It’s All Bueno, The Hub of the Universe, Black Girl Rising, Axiom and The Great White Way. Sigrid has worked with Katselas Theatre Company, Cornerstone Theater Company, Watts Village Theatre, Company of Angles, and Clubbed Thumb Theatre Company. Ms. Gilmer has studied theatre at Cal State LA and Cal Arts and in Japan, Rwanda and Iowa. Her current obsessions include: American history, paying attention and true crime. Sigrid is a member of Cornerstone Theater Company and resides in Los Angeles.