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‘Lines of Freedom’ at the Irondale Ensemble Project

That’s edutainment! Two Fort Greene musicals celebrate Black History Month

The Brooklyn Paper
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Freedom sings in Fort Greene.

The Irondale Ensemble Project is hosting a pair of musical productions in celebration of Black History Month starting Feb. 20 — a play about the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn and an opera about the life of Harriet Tubman.

“It’s the perfect pairing,” said Matthew Gray, producing director for American Opera Projects, the South Oxford Street group that is producing the opera. “And we wanted our Brooklyn audience to have first crack at it.”

“Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom” is a folk opera written by Nigerian-American composer Nkeiru Okoye. It tells the story of how a young girl born into slavery became an American hero, leading countless slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

“It’s really an incredible story,” said Gray. He also emphasized that the production is more accessible than a typical opera, as the music is taken from the traditions of early African-American culture, such as gospel, ragtime, and minstrel songs.

“It sort of takes you on a tour of early African music,” he said.

Soprano Janinah Burnett from the Metropolitan Opera will play Tubman, with the Harlem Chamber Players providing the music.

Performed in repertory with the Harriet Tubman opera will be “Color Between the Lines,” a show Irondale developed with help from the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Weeksville Heritage Center.

The musical tells the history of the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn through original songs based on research conducted through the cultural project “In Pursuit of Freedom,” which aims to raise awareness about the anti-slavery movement in the borough.

“It’s newly uncovered history,” said Terry Greiss, executive director of the Irondale Ensemble Project.

The raw research was a bit dry for use in a stage production, so Greiss said his company decided to start singing parts of the historical narrative, improvising and then reworking the songs.

“We didn’t want it to be a costumed lecture,” he said. “We wanted it to be a pageant.”

Greiss hopes the pair of performances will bring people in to remember the history of African-Americans, and their pursuit of freedom.

“I think it brings to prominence the tremendous abolitionist background that Brooklyn has,” he said. “We want to reach out to this community with stories about this community.”“Lines of Freedom” at the Irondale Ensemble Project [85 South Oxford St. between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street in Fort Greene, (718) 488–9233, www.irondale.org]. “Color Between the Lines,” Feb. 20, 22, and 28 at 7:30 pm, and March 1 at 3 pm. “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom,” Feb. 21, 27, and March 1 at 7:30 pm, and Feb. 22 at 3 pm. $15–$25 each. Packages available.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
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