The Cleveland Public Theater play dives deep into the life of social activist Joan Evelyn Southgate
Clevelander Joan Evelyn Southgate made national headlines two decades ago by charting the course of the Underground Railroad on foot. A new production tells the story of Southgate on stage through Saturday, May 14 at the Cleveland Public Theater. But, there is much more to this story than a grandmother on a long walk.
In a 2016 interview with Ideastream, Southgate described his 519-mile trek as a spiritual quest, mimicking a journey unimagined by countless people whose names have been lost to history.
“It was really that voice of the ancestors,” Southgate said. “It was about teaching who these Africans were and how strong they were.”
Cleveland Public Theater executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan agreed that the idea of a woman in her mid-70s walking all this way was an attractive story for reporters and a great photo opportunity.
“Part of the reason this story is often told is because it’s about a white person’s experience of interacting and connecting with Joan,” Bobgan said. “And this piece isn’t about that.”
The room is called “The Absolutely Incredible and True Adventures of Mrs. Joan Evelyn Southgate,” and it explores Southgate’s entire life, from the incidents of discrimination she experienced as a child to the historic walks that took her through Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania, New York and Canada. She also founded Restore Cleveland Hope, a non-profit organization that aims to tell the story of Cleveland’s Underground Railroad and preserve a station of that history, the 1853 Cozad-Bates House at University Circle.
Bobgan enlisted local playwright and actress Nina Domingue to do a show.
“Joan was talking about the walk. It must have been maybe four or five years after she finished it,” Domingue said. “And Raymond was like, ‘Nina, you gotta come listen to Mrs Southgate, I think you’d like it.'”
Domingue was captivated by this gentle but powerful elder and her remarkable story.
“First of all, she’s kind of like me, and I love that,” Domingue said with a laugh. “And I met her and she really is who she is every time you meet her. Very warm, very open. And we became friends after that. And I was going to visit her at least once or twice a month and I would sit and just talk and have tea and hang out. And one of those times she came out with her memoir. And she was like, ‘Nina, I want you to do a show about my life’, and she dropped it in my lap and walked away.
It wasn’t just a copy of the book, it was the actual typescript with Southgate’s handwritten notes. Domingue said she was terrified.
“And I wrapped it in paper and I put it in a box and I kept it safe for about 10 years. And I was like, ‘I’m not ready to do this’, it was just too big,” she said. “And then, you know, time went by and life went on, and I had a bunch of kids and it’s like, you know, Joan’s 90. I should do it soon if I want to do it so she can get her flowers while she is with us.
So Domingue went back to that bundle of papers and started translating those words into a one-woman stage performance. In one scene, Domingue re-enacts a schoolyard incident from the life of Joan Southgate. A white classmate had just used a racial slur against the young Southgate, prompting a defiant response.
“I know I’m the only girl of color in this whole school, other than Delores, but my family has lived here pretty much my whole life. And if I have to hit you, I will,” the character says, pointing to a crowd of children. “I don’t want to, but they will encourage me. Things are working out here.
For Raymond Bobgan, the story of Southgate is much bigger than a single person’s experience.
“It’s not just Joan who is seen, but it’s thousands, hundreds of thousands of women who have been through the same things as her,” he said. “A lot of people thought the same way she did and can connect with that feeling of hope against all odds.”
Nina Domingue said her goal was to go beyond the fleeting headlines and dive into something deeper.
“And often, especially with black women, if there’s something we’ve done that’s considered extraordinary, our entire life becomes encapsulated in that thing,” she said. “And that’s what I didn’t want to do.”
And she added that Southgate herself says her life story is far from over.
“She actually asked me to change a line in the play,” Domingue said. “She used to say all the time, ‘I’m going to live to be 125.’ And she said, ‘Nina, I added a year, it’s 126.’ “