“NORTH” shares journey of freedom seekers through the Underground Railroad and includes local history
LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Lied Center of Kansas is thrilled to present and serve as the lead commissioner of a new musical for intergenerational audiences. A story of relationships, grit, betrayal, ingenuity, joy and, above all, humanity, “NORTH: The Musical” will make its world premiere on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 7 pm at the Lied Center.
Created by Ashli St. Armant, “NORTH” is a powerful musical about a teenage boy and his mother who escape slavery in the deep south through the Underground Railroad. Their route through the Louisiana bayous, the bustling city of New Orleans, and the young town of Lawrence, Kansas introduces the characters and the audience to the diverse, multifaceted lives of Black Americans during this time.
Set in the 1850s, “NORTH” is inspired by true accounts of slave escapes through the Underground Railroad network as well as St. Armant’s personal family history. Her ancestors were enslaved in Vacherie, Louisiana, and her research for this project led her to discover connections to her own family. Many of those findings influenced the story, including characters like “Tham the Brave,” a real-life leader in a Maroons community who had been enslaved on the same plantation as St. Armant’s family members in the 1780s. The set design and the song “Oh, What These Trees Have Seen” in the musical come from her personal experience visiting the area where this plantation had been located. She also visited historical sites in Lawrence, Kansas and talked with local historians to incorporate details about Lawrence and John Brown into the show.
While acknowledging the realities of slavery, the book and original musical compositions by St. Armant bring out the full experience of freedom seekers, exploring themes of optimism, bravery, playfulness, wonder, suspense and mystery. The musical genres in this show are equal parts jazz, musical theatre and St. Armant’s own signature style. For inspiration she drew from an array of musical heroes, including Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Fela Kuti and Stephen Sondheim.
“This play is bigger than me, and it’s a part of me,” says St. Armant. “I hope the audience feels the humanity in these characters because they’re alive. For myself, the creative team and the actors, we’ve all said that being part of creating this piece has changed us — we’ve all grown as people. I hope the audience feels this too.”
The show is a part of the Lied Center’s Family Series, and tickets for the debut public performance on Oct. 26 are available at lied.ku.edu and at the Lied Center Ticket Office (prices: adults – $25, student/youth – $14). “NORTH” will also be presented as a free school performance at the Lied Center for fourth and fifth graders in Lawrence Public Schools. “The Lied Center has a long track record of commissioning new works, but we have never financially supported a project geared towards young audiences, until now. We are honored to partner with Ashli St. Armant on a musical that has such historical ties to our very own community,” says Derek Kwan, Lied Center executive director.
In connection with “NORTH,” the Lied Center has developed robust education and engagement materials to accompany the school performance as well as a video of historical narratives, which is available for anyone to view, with local stories and history relating to the Underground Railroad. Utilizing the talents of local historians and actors, the video highlights stories, often untold, of freedom seekers in Lawrence. The video can be viewed at lied.ku.edu/event/north-musical.
Following the Lied Center debut, “NORTH” will tour this fall at the show’s other commissioning partner venues: Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Costa Mesa, Calif.), Chandler Center for the Arts (Chandler, Ariz.) and Playhouse Square (Cleveland, Ohio).
About Ashli St. Armant
Jazz vocalist, composer, musician and playwright Ashli St. Armant is known for her award-winning work in children’s education and entertainment, including her band, Jazzy Ash and Leaping Lizards, and her Audible mystery series, “Viva Durant,” which includes New York Times bestselling story, “Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons.”
About the Lied Center of Kansas
The Lied Center of Kansas serves the University of Kansas and the greater community by functioning as a catalyst for the arts, creativity, engagement and community building. Since opening its doors in 1993, the Lied Center has presented diverse, world-class performing arts each season, engaged our community with experiential learning through the performing arts, and served as a communal gathering space for shared experiences and connection. Learn more about the Lied Center at lied.ku.edu.
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