Cleveland played an important role in the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, helping runaway slaves find their way to freedom and safety. Known as Station Hope, Cleveland offered places of refuge, such as Cozad-Bates House and St. John’s Episcopal Church, to those passing through the city.
Joan Evelyn SouthgateEvery year, even during the pandemic, the Cleveland Public Theater (CPT) produces its Station Hope event, to celebrate The history of social justice in Cleveland and explore contemporary struggles for freedom and equality.
This year, in addition to its annual Station Hope lineup in May, CPT will produce “The Absolutely Incredible and True Adventures of Mrs. Joan Evelyn Southgate” – capturing one woman’s mission to trace the paths of the Underground Railroad and the stories heartbreaking that came from that.
The play, written and performed by Cleveland actress Nina Domingue, chronicles the 519-mile journey of local activist Joan Evelyn Southgate in 2002, at the age of 73, along the Underground Railroad route from Ripley, Ohio to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.
Southgate has spent years researching the railroad and organizing events that highlight this chapter in United States history.
Nina Domingo She says she believes it is important to shine a light on the experiences of slaves in the mid-1800s, as well as bringing the subject to light locally. When Southgate first asked Domingue, a well-known Cleveland-area actor and playwright, to tell her story, Domingue says she knew it was her calling.
“[Southgate] just turned 93 this year and we became friends at that time,” says Domingue. “And she asked me to write a play about her life.”
So. Domingue set about writing “The Absolutely Incredible and True Adventures of Mrs. Joan Evelyn Southgate”.
“There are tons of articles, a book, a documentary on the march itself,” says Domingue. “It was very important to me to write about the woman who took the march.”
Southgate runs an organization called Restore Cleveland Hope, which helped promote the upcoming play. The organization has also worked with Cleveland Restoration Society, Western Reserve Historical Societyand Cleveland Ward 9 City Council member Kevin Conwell on the effort to restore the Cozad Bates House in University Circle, which housed slaves and is the only pre-Civil War house still standing in that area.
In addition to writing the play, Domingue also plays in “Absolutely Incredible”. She says she started writing her own works, including this production, to show off her range of skills to theater productions.
Domingue is originally from New Orleans, and her performances in poetry interpretation and dueting in high school are part of what led her into the world of acting. She then attended Dillard University in New Orleans, which was the first historically black college or university (HBCU) to offer a major in theater. After college, Domingue came to Cleveland.
“My mom’s family is from Cleveland,” she explains. “So after I graduated from Dillard, I interned at Playhouse Square’s Children’s Theater Series for a year.”
Nathan HenryThe children’s theater series experience helped launch Domingue’s theatrical career in Cleveland. [at Playhouse Square]I would audition at Karamu [House] and Great Lakes [Theater]kind of put my face there,” says Domingue.
She credits the CPT team for helping to make the production of ‘Absolutely Amazing’ possible, especially director Nathan Henry, choreographer and movement coach Kenya Woods and composer Bill Ransom.
“The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Mrs. Joan Evelyn Southgate” opens Friday, April 22, with a preview Thursday, April 21. The show runs until Saturday, May 14.
All tickets are available through CPT’s Choose What You Pay program, ranging from $1 to the standard ticket price of $35. Buy your tickets online or by calling the box office at (216) 631-2727 ext. 501 between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. from Wednesday to Saturday. The Cleveland Public Theater is located in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District at 6415 Detroit Ave.