A newly commissioned musical is set to make its world premiere at the Lied Center this month, sharing stories of former enslaved Black Americans who were far more than their circumstances.
Created by California-based playwright and director Ashli St. Armant, “NORTH: The Musical” follows the story of a mother, Minnie, and her son, Lawrence, escaping slavery in the south through the Underground Railroad network and traveling up north.
In addition to a plot in which characters are resilient through adversity, St. Armant explained, songs and choreography will take the audience through a “musical journey.” Elements of jazz, spirituals, Afrobeats, musical theater, ballads and more are incorporated throughout.
“That’s the Black experience, in my opinion — that we know how to tap into all our feelings and find joy in the difficult times,” St. Armant said. “I want people to experience the humanity of Black folks across our history [and] in this land. And my biggest goal, which is already happening, is to start conversations.”
While recognizing the brutality of slavery, the musical seeks to “bring out the full experience of freedom-seekers: optimism, bravery, playfulness, wonder, suspense and mystery,” the production’s website states.
“NORTH: The Musical” is set in the 1850s and the characters’ experiences are based on true accounts of enslaved people who escaped through the Underground Railroad, according to the website. St. Armant also inserted nuances from her own family’s ancestry in Louisiana.
The main characters, Minnie and Lawrence, travel through the Louisiana bayous, experience the culture of New Orleans, and stop through the new town of Lawrence, Kansas. Audience members will be presented with true history of an Underground Railroad route that was located in Lawrence.
Anthea Scouffas, the Lied Center’s engagement and education director, said that during the partnership process, she took St. Armant to Grover Barn, a site in Lawrence that served as an Underground Railroad station. After learning more from local historians, St. Armant said she was amazed and thus wrote the city into the story’s plot.
This is St. Armant’s first theatrical production, which Scouffas called “phenomenal.” She expressed her excitement for the Lied Center being the first to host it.
“Ashli has a special talent — a gift. She’s really a great artist,” Scouffas said. “She is really wanting to showcase to people the resilience and the agency and just the rich life that all of these folks had. Even if they were enslaved, they loved, they lost, they had joy, they had pain, and they were people that were unique and rich and had all of this.”
St. Armant said she was inspired to create this production because of the lack of Black history education, both in her experience and in her own children’s experiences, and her biggest goal is to spark conversations among audience members.
“I thought about my own experiences learning Black history in school — often the only Black kid in my class — and how confusing it was, traumatizing sometimes, and then just sometimes flat out boring and very one-dimensional,” St. Armant said. “For this 200-year period, all Black people were slaves, is what I thought. Come to find out, that was far from the truth.”
“NORTH: The Musical” will debut at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at the Lied Center Auditorium, 1600 Stewart Drive in Lawrence.
Tickets cost $25 for adults and $14 for students or youth. There is an additional $5 fee to purchase online. Tickets can also be purchased through the Lied Center’s ticket office, open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays or by calling 785-864-2787.
This story of freedom-seekers serves “intergenerational audiences,” making it suitable for all ages, according to the website. As part of a long-standing partnership between the Lawrence school district and the Lied Center, fourth and fifth grade classes in the district will attend special, free performances.
After its Lawrence debut, the musical will travel to Costa Mesa, California; Chandler, Arizona; and Cleveland, Ohio.
To learn more about “NORTH: The Musical,” visit the production’s website and the Lied Center’s website. Visit this link to view the Lied Center’s program for the show, which includes a full cast and crew list as well as song titles.