by Sydney Southwick, dramaturg
In preparation for the North Star auditions last November, Gloria Bond Clunie, the playwright and director of this production, hosted a virtual workshop for BYU’s theatre arts students, entitled “In the Company of Stars.” Attendees listened and learned as they shared with each other their first times experiencing race. In response to these conversations, Gloria asked the students to imagine a vast sky full of stars. In the distance, at the tip of the Little Dipper, there is a bright constant: the North Star.
Gloria recalls scouring the sky in search of the North Star with her own father. It was a symbol of hope and direction, something to keep people anchored through the stormy waves of life because it always stays in a fixed position in the sky. Gloria said, “Whether it is a Black rite of passage or a personal idiosyncrasy, I will never know.” But this beacon of hope is also a symbol of anti-slavery.
The North Star was paramount in the 1800s to slaves following the Underground Railroad in search of freedom in the North. They traveled in the dark, hoping the cover of night would be enough to protect them from slave owners and bounty hunters. It is said that conductors of the Underground Railroad, like Harriet Tubman, taught those seeking freedom how to find the North Star in the sky using the Big Dipper to guide them in the right direction. By the year 1850, more than 100,000 slaves escaped to the Northern states and Canada this way.
Around this same time, another conductor of the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, started an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star, which promoted equality and the hope for educational advancements for people of color. Douglass himself was born a slave, and although it was forbidden, his master’s wife taught him how to read. He used his literacy to escape his captivity and became a talented reader, writer, and speaker.
The symbol of the North Star continues to shine for people today, including Aurelia from North Star:
I would find it again and again, until I lost the glimmer of a star in my heart among all those tall, brightly lit buildings. The stars are faint in the sky above – but they are there… And tonight, before I turn out the lamp, I will hold my daughter close… and show her my scars. I will weep with her and let my tears wash her wounds. I will pray for her children and her children’s children, then dry her face and tell her to close her eyes. ‘Look up. There’s a whole universe of light inside us! We just have to find it.’
See what the star means to you as you watch North Star by Gloria Bond Clunie, running March 4-6 at 7:30 PM.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Harriet Tubman, abolitionist” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83d506fd-b820-982c-e040-e00a18060c2c
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Prospectus for an anti-slavery paper. To be entitled North Star.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1857 – 1997. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-be57-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Frederick Douglass” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-7dd9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99