By Charlotte Karp
VANCOUVER – Written and performed by singer-songwriter Khari Wendell McClelland, Freedom Singer is a musical theatre documentary about McClelland’s great-great-great grandmother Kizzy and her journey escaping slavery in the United States walking from Detroit to Ontario.
On the way, Kizzy had two children, was betrayed by a British-Canadian man, lost her legs in the cold, and returned to Detroit after slavery was abolished. That may be an incredible story in itself, but what sets this production apart is the level of research that went in to its creation and McClelland’s unique way of storytelling. Working with director Andrew Kushnir and CBC journalist Jodie Martinson, McClelland went through an arduous process to gain an understanding of how Kizzy escaped, how she travelled, and how she maintained morale in situations of life and death.
“We travelled first to Halifax,” says McClelland. “And then weaved our way through Ontario, then on to Detroit, going to various archives and museums, talking to individual knowledge-holders, and using the scraps we could find to use our imaginations and fill in the blanks — music was a primary way of connecting to the past.”
The result? A unique fusion of old freedom lyrics from the 1850s compounded with McClelland’s own scores that don’t only tell the story of Kizzy, but also of thousands of others as they fled enslavement. McClelland also used a series of first-hand stories to develop a broader picture and create a real sense of what it is to have a home, a sense of place, and importantly, what it means to be “free.”
“The most rewarding part of putting this show together has been sharing it with amazing artists and audiences across the country, while simultaneously making my mom proud,” says McClelland. “I feel a stronger sense of myself, family, community, and what moral courage means for me.”
Freedom Singer runs from October 7 – 18 at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre.