Little Lifeboats takes on race, representation, and casting

Little Lifeboats takes on race, representation, and casting
Victoria Pyan and Suzanne Cross, photo by Stacey Kanarski

Little Lifeboats takes on issues of race and representation in a new play, titled Raise Your Voice (Suzanne Cross): That F---ing Harriet Tubman Play. Written by Abby Swafford, who is a member and co-founder of the theater company, the work mixes silly humor and serious topics in a triple plot full of time travel, pilgrims, inner voices, and a bright-pink kiddie pool. With a white actress, Victoria Pyan, playing Harriet Tubman, and an African American actress, Suzanne Cross, playing Clara Barton, the show follows the latter's journey to discover her own agency.

Victoria Pyan and Suzanne Cross, photo by Stacey Kanarski
Victoria Pyan and Suzanne Cross, photo by Stacey Kanarski

The idea for the script came about when Swafford was hanging out with some of her friends and joking about bad play ideas. Pyan, who was there as well, suggested that she could play Harriet Tubman. While it was meant as an extreme example of an unfortunate idea, it sparked a train of thought in Swafford of how she could write a piece that directly deals with representation of race onstage. At the time, she was seeing a lot of theater "mishandling race onstage, casting people in roles that didn't belong in those roles," she says. So she came up with the idea of a play within a play.  

There are actually three levels in the show. There's the first level, a badly written, badly directed play about Harriet Tubman and Clara Barton. Then, there's a "super long and awful" second layer, says Swafford, where there are lots of "historical details that are unnecessary." In the second level, the actors continually call out the playwright (Swafford), and talk about how terrible the play is. Finally, there's the "real" play, which focuses on Suzanne Cross, the actress playing Clara Barton who, like the other actors, plays a version of herself. Swafford says the real play deals with Cross finding her own voice as an actress, and as an African American artist. 

As part of the writing process, Swafford interviewed Cross about acting, the role, and "what it felt like as a black woman in the Twin Cities," Swafford says. Certain elements of Cross's character's journey come out of the actress's own life, while other bits are "stuff I just made up." 

Once the rehearsal process began, the three layers of the script could get quite confusing at times. When the stories were just in her head, she had never thought that it would be complicated. Once the actors started reading the text, she realized it could be really confusing.
"The beginning will be a little bit jarring," she says. "It's really a farce, an absurdist play. You have to allow yourself to accept that yes, they are in a kiddie pool right now, and that's okay." 

Director Chris Garza has taken on some of the charge of helping distinguish between the different worlds, in part through working with the lighting designer. For an hour-long show, it has quite a few light cues -- about 60 total. "It's kind of ridiculous," Swafford says. "Chris Garza has been so great and wonderful." 
Victoria Pyan and Suzanne Cross, photo by Stacey Kanarski
Victoria Pyan and Suzanne Cross, photo by Stacey Kanarski

The costumes help tell the story, too. Designed by Erin Denman, Harriet and Clara's costumes are particularly "terrible and horrible in the best possible way." 

This isn't the first time Swafford has tackled these topics in her work. The first play she wrote for Little Lifeboats discussed race and sex in small-town Minnesota. Race is something she thinks and writes about a lot, especially as a mixed-race person who most people misidentify as white. Her mother is a tribally enrolled member of the White Earth Reservation, and she identifies as Native American as well, but she is aware of her own white privilege. "I try to unpack that white privilege a much as possible," she says. "My Native identity is very important to me, but I also know that if it wasn't important to me it wouldn't change my life a whole lot. I grew up not that differently than a lot of my peers."  

Swafford came up with the subtitle long before the title of the play. Though "That F-ing Harriet Tubman Play" emerged very early, she didn't want it to be the main title, in part because she felt the play, while very funny, had a lot of serious moments. She needed to find a title that spoke to Cross's arc within the show about finding her voice as a person and as an artist.


Raise Your Voice (Suzanne Cross): That F---ing Harriet Tubman Play
September 4-19
Bryant-Lake Bowl
7 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays

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Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater

810 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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