“Voices of the Eighth” is Historical Theater at Its Finest

The first thing that strikes you about Sankofa Theatre Company’s latest production is its music. The play opens with an old-fashioned piano riff as we look at a picture of a Harrisburg building from the early 1900s. As the image shifts to an image of the same building in the present day, the soundtrack fades in trap drums and rattling hi-hats, presenting musically the contrast of time periods which is the crux of this play.

“Voices of the Eighth” follows the discovery journey that Kay Marshall (played by Lunden McClain) undergoes when her mother requires her to redo her history assignment. Stuck without internet access and any idea what to research she calls on the assistance of family friend and census worker Ms. Lisa (Played by Lisa Dickerson). Together they go for a walk through the streets of Harrisburg, and Kay discovers just how consequential her home city truly was, and still is.

Everything about the play is painstakingly researched and structured for historical accuracy. Writer Sharia Benn worked in conjunction with the Commonwealth Monument Project using information from the research of Messiah College Students as well as that of Mr. Calobe Jackson Jr. to create a historically accurate, and immersive environment. The atmosphere was topped off perfectly by the images projected, taken from the PA state archives.

Every actor in the production leaves it all on the stage, in many cases playing multiple parts. Lyneal Griffin especially impressed as he perfectly displayed the liberated joy of escaped slave John J. Marshall, the vigor of Reverend John Q. Adams, and the dignified passion of Jacob T. Compton.

From right to left: Lyeneal Griffin, Johntrae Williams, Lisa Leone Dickerson, Meredith Greene, Sharia Benn, and Betty Joyner.

Kay experiences all of these personalities as she goes on a bizarre magical realism fueled journey in which she encounters all three of Griffins characters as well as a few other historical figures like Della Carter (Megan Mwaura) and Hannah Braxton Jones (Meredith Greene). As she meets these ghosts of The Old Eighth, Kay begins to understand the powerful role that every ordinary citizen has. Her cynical attitude evolves into a strong desire to embrace the call to fight for those who are voiceless.

The show ends with Kay deciding that she will do everything she can in the present day to spread the Voices of the Eighth, and that is when the Eureka moment of the show’s anagramatic title becomes clear. V.O.T.E. As Kay has her epiphany the cast begins singing at the top of their lungs — lead by Betty Joyner’s powerful voice — The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The little girl in the seat next to me leaped to her feet and raised her arms at the showing I attended, seemingly in celebration of all that was happening onstage. If that doesn’t speak to the changing power that every citizen has, then I don’t know what does.

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