Ac­tress chan­nels Tub­man in spe­cial ‘Un­der­ground’

The Washington Times Daily - - LIFE - BY FRA­ZIER MOORE

NEW YORK | Har­riet Tub­man, who es­caped from slav­ery in the an­te­bel­lum South to be­come a lead­ing abo­li­tion­ist, is best known to­day as a right­eous fig­ure and the fu­ture face on the $20 bill.

But for view­ers of “Un­der­ground” this sea­son, Tub­man has come to life as a char­ac­ter on this drama about the treach­er­ous jour­ney to free­dom along a se­cret net­work of safe houses that came to be called the Un­der­ground Railroad.

Now Tub­man is the fo­cus of some­thing spe­cial, even un­prece­dented in episodic TV, with this week’s “Un­der­ground” episode. It will pause its over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive for a night to let Tub­man tell her own story in the form of a solo per­for­mance.

Aisha Hinds, who this sea­son has por­trayed Tub­man, will de­liver a pow­er­ful, pas­sion­ate episode-length ora­tion chan­nel­ing Tub­man.

For Miss Hinds, it was “an honor and a call to duty.” The episode will pre­miere on WGN Amer­ica at 8 p.m. EDT on Wed­nes­day, with back-to-back re­peats con­tin­u­ing through a re­play at 1 a.m. EDT.

The episode is set in what ap­pears to be a re­mote barn or stor­age shed where, some night in the late 1850s, a few dozen sym­pa­thiz­ers have gath­ered furtively to hear from this cham­pion of free­dom.

The script, writ­ten by se­ries co-cre­ator Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, draws on Tub­man’s his­tory and words.

Tub­man calls slav­ery “the next thing to hell” and likens the taste of it to “all your teeth made of cop­per.”

Born into slav­ery, she speaks of how initially she “spent all my time know­ing things in­stead of be­liev­ing them. And that’s the first step to truly be­ing free, when you can see past all the things that you know and be­lieve some­thing bet­ter. It ain’t easy, but that’s the work that must be done.”

Stir­ringly, Tub­man re­counts the work that won her free­dom when fi­nally she crossed the line into Penn­syl­va­nia. But the work wasn’t done once she es­caped. Over and over, she re­turned to the South to lead oth­ers to safety.

“There ain’t no ne­go­ti­a­tions on free­dom,” she de­clares. “Big or small, there ain’t no com­pro­mises, no half-mea­sures. Cause a coun­try built on bod­ies will al­ways need more for the slaugh­ter.”

This episode was shot, like the rest of “Un­der­ground,” in Sa­van­nah, Georgia. De­spite air­ing as the sixth of the 10-episode sea­son, it was the last episode shot dur­ing the fi­nal three days be­fore pro­duc­tion wrapped last Novem­ber.

“Usu­ally an episode would take six to eight days,” notes Miss Hinds, who re­ceived the first half of the 45-page script just 10 days be­fore­hand and the other half a few days later. Could she pos­si­bly learn all that di­a­logue in such a short amount of time?

Day One called for film­ing the first two acts of the hour’s to­tal of five. “I laugh about it now, but I was so anx­ious,” she con­fides.

As a backup sys­tem, the pro­duc­ers ar­ranged for her to wear an ear­piece, with Ms. Green stand­ing by to feed her any needed cue.

With this ar­range­ment, “I breathed a sigh of re­lief,” Miss Hinds re­calls. But to her dis­may, she found the ear­piece emit­ted a dis­tract­ing level of static.

“I took a mo­ment, I took a breath, and I re­moved the ear­piece,” she says. “In that mo­ment I knew that I had to de­pend on noth­ing else but Har­riet Tub­man. And ev­ery sin­gle word came out. That’s when I felt con­fi­dent that Har­riet had this.”

What Miss Hinds en­tered was a state “where the brain emp­tied it­self, and I could re­ally feel her pres­ence push­ing the story out of me. Those were the di­vine mo­ments, where I hon­estly can’t take any credit for what­ever the per­for­mance is, be­cause it al­most be­came like I wasn’t even there.”

But Day Three brought an even greater chal­lenge. There were just seven pages left to shoot, but that scene was be­ing staged in a sin­gle take. No cut­ting.

“So ev­ery time I made a mis­take, we had to stop and go back to the be­gin­ning. There were a few times I felt like I was go­ing to break.”

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