For the first time in over 20 years, a Philadelphia theater artist will be performing at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Zuhairah McGill, founder of the First World Theatre Ensemble in West Philadelphia, will be performing her one-woman show, “Sojourner,” wherein she performs as the early 19th century Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
The National Black Theatre Festival is a biennial event showcasing a curated selection of Black theater performances from across the country. It was started in 1989 as a way for Black theater companies and artists to connect with each other, and has become one of the most prestigious events in African-American theater.
“It’s the crème de la crème,” said McGill, who did not audition to be in the festival. The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, which produces the festival, selects and invites its performers without forewarning.
McGill at first did not believe the text she got informing her she was selected. It only sank in when a formal email was sent.
“I actually sat in my living room and cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
McGill has been performing “Sojourner” regularly since she debuted the script by Richard Lamonte Pierce in 2002, when she was nominated for a Barrymore Award. It was most recently staged in Philadelphia by the Quintessence company in 2021, but McGill is asked throughout the year by venues across the country for brief runs of the performance, particularly around February (Black History Month) and March (Women’s History Month).
“Harriet [Tubman] was bringing people from the south to the north to help free them on the Underground Railroad. But Sojourner Truth wanted something bigger,” said McGill. “She wanted to bring the entire institution of slavery down. So she was a big threat.”
Truth, a former slave, had the largest bounty on her head of anyone at that time, and was asked to counsel President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, in 1864.
“People sometimes think it’s weird, but I talk to her spiritually and I get permission to tell her story,” said McGill. “I ask her to have her presence in my body, in my mind, and to bring her presence into the room so that I can tell her story, and not my story.”
More than telling Sojourner’s story, McGill said this opportunity at the NBTF will allow her to represent Philadelphia, being the first person from Philly to perform there in 21 years.
About 60,000 people usually attend the National Black Theatre Festival over its seven days, including the who’s-who of Black theater and popular celebrities. This year, Regina Taylor, Ben Vereen, Ted Lange, and Vivian Reed are among the special guests expected to attend.
The high-profile spotlight at the NBTF has made McGill nervous. She has been turning to Sojourner Truth to ask for help getting through this week.
“You don’t know who’s going to pop up at your show. So my level of anxiety is really high,” she said. “I’ve been talking to her constantly, like, ‘Yo, Sojourner, you got to carry me on this one.’”
The pressure will not stop after the festival. Her company First World Theatre has been asked to be the resident company at the Arden Theater for the next two seasons. She accepted, but does not want the company to move away from its longtime residency at the Community Education Center in Powelton Village. So First World Theatre will straddle both spaces, with one foot in West Philly and one in Old City for the next two years.
McGill is also pressuring Philadelphia theater companies to be mindful of their own equity and diversity efforts. During the pandemic, when theaters were forced to be closed, McGill joined many other theater artists demanding companies become more welcoming to a wider swath of theater professionals, particularly Black, women, and trans artists.
In the summer of 2020 McGill hosted a series of discussions to bring together heads of theater companies with Philadelphia theater artists to be able to address concerns about the theater industry.
“If I’m entering your theater space and I feel uncomfortable, and you’re making me uncomfortable, and you’re living in times of the past and not trying to make changes, I think it’s our job to make you aware of that so we can work together better,” she said.
Those discussions were put on hold as theaters opened up again and companies turned their attention to staging work that people will want to come see. McGill has been keeping tabs on some theaters to see how they are evolving in terms of diversity and inclusion, and said she will host another discussion in October to remind people about what they promised in 2020.
Saturdays just got more interesting.