Playwright Kyle Bass Speaks at Le Moyne

Playwright Kyle Bass, writer of Possessing Harriet

Playwright Kyle Bass, writer of Possessing Harriet

On November 5, 2018, playwright Kyle Bass gave a craft talk in the Drescher Community Room at Le Moyne College. Bass is the writer of the new play Possessing Harriet which debuted at Syracuse Stage on October 17, 2018. Possessing Harriet is the story of Harriet Powell, an
enslaved young woman escaping to Canada who stops at the home of abolitionist Gerrit Smith on her road to freedom. While there, Harriet has a conversation with a young Elizabeth Cady that pushes her to make a life-changing decision.

At Le Moyne, Bass spoke about what it was like to write this show and why he made the creative choices that he did. When working with historical figures, Bass had to do extensive research on what these people were like and then forget almost all of it in order to write the play.

He had to unlearn what history had imagined them to be and reimagine them for his own purposes. This was difficult for the more well-known figures in the play, being Gerrit Smith and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but for the two characters of color Bass said he had much more creative liberty given how little is known about them.

Reimagination is necessary to create a story out of history. Bass made it clear that his goal for this show was “not to edit and present a factual documentary but to create a drama and reveal the truths of our shared history.”

Bass then discussed why this show became so important to him. He told the deeply emotional story of his great-great-grandfather who had been an escaped slave and then a Union soldier in the 26th NYS regiment. This story had been passed along generations and was critical in the formation of Bass’s life.

He described seeing a population density map of slavery in the US, calling it a slowly spreading ink stain, a bruise. “America has the mournful honor of adding a new genre to literature: the autobiographies of escaped slaves,” Bass said. Showing the truth of those words through the fictionalized nature of Harriet and Elizabeth’s conversation was Bass’s goal for the play.

Bass said the first line of his play, through countless revisions, had always been “Slaves built this house.” He said that line evokes more than the set, or even the theater walls, extending through “this haunted America.” “Slaves built this house and it’s burning down,” he said. “This play is my attempt to cry ‘fire.’”

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Bass spoke a bit about his revision process. “You never know how a play will work until it’s in an actor’s body.” He said that he revised all the way up until opening night, making minuscule tweaks to the script.

The play is structured like an orchestra piece in terms of movement. Bass called himself “a composer for an instrument called an actor.” He wanted to show words the way we wish we spoke them, rather than how we actually speak. He also wanted to make use of the absence of
words, emphasizing the silence of the play’s final moments.

He also always wanted to keep the play contained to 90 minutes with no intermission, as “slavery had no intermission.” Thus, he kept the conflict away from those chasing Harriet and focused on the conflicts within her and around her. He explored the looming question of what
freedom is truly made of through the turmoil of one young woman.

Overall, Bass’s visit to Le Moyne provided stunning insight into what was already a spectacular piece of theater. Hearing Bass’s personal history and emotional process of writing and revising was as mesmerizing as the show itself.