Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was edited and introduced to its antebellum reading public in 1861 by the white abolitionist Lydia Marie Child. Nearly a century and a half later, another Lydia once again brings Jacobs's story to the public attention as Harriet Jacobs, a stage play by critically acclaimed African American playwright Lydia R. Diamond. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre commissioned and debuted the play in 2008 as part of its youth program. Regarded as Diamond's best work, the play ends with Jacobs, recently liberated from her hiding space of seven years, declaring to the audience, “But it was above Grandmother's shed, in the cold and dark, in the heat and solitude, that I found my voice.” This aspirational claim to an unshackled black girl voice reverberates a twenty-first-century renewal of black women artists, scholars, and activists committed to recovering, proclaiming, and celebrating black girls. With subsequent back-to-back productions in 2010 by the Underground Railway Theater and Kansas City Repertory Theatre (KCRep), the play heralds the millennial energy of both the 2013 #blackgirlmagic social-media campaign and the 2014 formation of black girlhood studies (BGS), an academic field that prioritizes “a rigorous commitment to locating the voices of black girls,” and elucidating the “local” intersections of race, gender, and other areas in which “black girls’ agency comes into view.” It is precisely this energetic recovery of a black girl voice on the contemporary stage—a Harriet for the new millennial—that makes Harriet Jacobs so attractive. Describing her vision for the KCRep production, director Jessica Thebus stated: “Our task as I see it, today, is to tell the story with the clarity and energy of Harriet Jacobs's voice with her humor, with her intellect, and consciousness.” And promoting Wayne State's 2017 production, Dale Dorlin writes:
For director Billicia Charnelle Hines, Harriet Jacobs is not a slave play, but a prime example of a heroine's journey. “This is an adventure story,” says Hines, “about a heroine who, no matter what, was determined to be free. That's someone I look up to. … I want people to think of her as a hero.”
Hines's focus on the hero and adventure genre echoes the comments of Hallie Gordon, director of the original Steppenwolf production, which located the play within another genre of Western subject formation, the bildungsroman; for Gordon, “Harriet Jacobs
is about the strength of this one girl who turns into a woman in front of our very eyes.” Critic Nancy Churnin, lauding the play's accessible rendering of a young female who finds in dismal confinement not only freedom but her voice, titled her 2016 review of the Dallas-based African American Repertory Theater's production, “A Slave Tale with Echoes of Anne Frank.” Resonant with Diamond's own desire for “Harriet Jacobs … to exist, theatrically, alongside Anne Frank and Joan of Arc,” Churnin's title presumably refers to The Diary of Anne Frank,
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 stage adaptation of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl
(first performed at the Cort Theatre on Broadway). Still, considering that Jacobs lived well before Frank, the comparison is curious. Reflected in that curiousness is something of the irony of lauding a portrait of historical black girlhood that obscures the minor complexities of a “slave tale” or “slave play.” The comparison effectively fits the black girl into a role of heroic girl power shaped by a history of white girlhood, in which the slave girl, coming too early, can be imagined only anachronistically at best.