A theatrical history of the Underground Railway

Freedom Singer comes to Winnipeg

Khari Wendell McClelland performs Freedom Singer.

Photo By Dahlia Katz

Singer/songwriter Khari Wendell McClelland co-created a show featuring the songs his great-great-great grandmother Kizzy likely sang on her escape to Canada through the Underground Railway.

Freedom Singer is a theatrical journey, performed by McClelland, through the history of the escape route many black slaves took from the U.S. to Canada.

“It’s been a way of me connecting more strongly to different aspects of my creativity. It has been a way of kind of returning home, connecting with family, reconnecting with the places that I come from,” McClelland says.

The show uses aspects of documentary theatre to bring the story together. Basically, actual documentary footage and interviews are being incorporated into portions of the play, McClelland says.

“As well, there will be live music performances that are contained within the course of the play that, I think, will help to illuminate the story and, I think, the story helps to illuminate the songs as well,” McClelland says.

Because the format uses multiple methods to communicate the story, McClelland says it’s an engaging and beautiful show.

“They’re triggering all sorts of emotions, from excitement and joy to sadness and (a) deep sort of introspection. It’s funny, too. I think it’s got all of the pieces that will keep people really interested and engaged as a participant.”

Helping keep the music alive throughout the performance is Noah Walker.

“He’s playing sort of percussion and drums at the same time that he’s playing guitar, and he’s singing, and he’s running loopers simultaneously and all sorts of pedals,” McClelland says.

He says he could not have had a better team to put Freedom Singer together.

Under Project: Humanity, he co-created the show with Andrew Kushnir, who is also the director. The two used work by journalist Jodie Martinson to put the Freedom Singer together.

Polaris Prize-nominated Tanika Charles also lends her voice to the show.

McClelland gave a modern twist to the songs. He says he wanted them to be authentic to his own expression and experiences.

“I felt as though attempting to do them as maybe a folklore, like, attempting to do them in their exact replicated form of what they might have done in 1850, didn’t feel authentic to me.”

The songs in Freedom Singer include hip-hop, soul, gospel, folk, funk and even a bit of country, McClelland says.

Response to the show has been good. McClelland says all Toronto shows have been sold out, thanks to word of mouth.

He says audiences were deeply moved by the show. It made them want to learn more about their own family history and Canadian history and develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

Freedom Singer is playing at the West End Cultural Centre on Feb. 22. Tickets are $25 through ticketfly.com.

Published in Volume 71, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 16, 2017)

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