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Highlights: Living History Interpreter Brings Harriet Tubman to Life

  • Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti presents "I Can't Die But Once," her one-woman show interpreting abolitionist Harriet Tubman, on Sunday at Whipple Hall in New London. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti has performed interpretations of several prominent African-American women. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Jazz singer Donna Byrne performs at Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon at the Center at Eastman in Grantham this weekend.

  • Pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Pam Tanowitz Dance ensemble perform Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' at the Hopkins Center in Hanover on Friday and Saturday nights, Jan. 11 and 12, 2019. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti is tinkering yet again with the script of her one-woman show channeling Harriet Tubman.

By the time she performs I Can’t Die But Once, on Sunday afternoon at New London’s Whipple Hall, don’t be surprised if the living-history artist is incorporating yet another new tidbit that she’s unearthed about the daring escaped slave, abolitionist and civil rights activist.

“I can’t put everything into my program,” Quezaire-Presutti said during a telephone interview from her home in East Hartford, Conn. “I have to leave some stuff out. That has been the hardest part of this work I do. The learning never stops. Discovering new things never stops.”

Shortly after moving to New England from Texas in 2001 to join her new husband, Quezaire-Presutti began researching and portraying African-American women of varying levels of name-recognition. When she added Tubman, one of the most familiar names, to the roster about a decade ago, Quezaire-Presutti found herself starting almost from scratch.

“In school, if they taught anything at all about her in history class, we did not learn about the cruelty she had to endure,” Quezaire-Presutti said. “She was illiterate, but she was far from stupid. She had what we call Mother Wit. She was crafty. She knew about nature. Her father taught her how to live on the land.”

Tubman used those skills first to shepherd hundreds of black captives off Southern plantations to the relative freedom of the North on the Underground Railroad during the mid-1800s, including the perilous decade between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made her mission a federal crime, and the start of the Civil War.

During the war, she served as a cook and a nurse and later as a scout and a spy for the Union Army behind Confederate lines.

And after the war and during the rise of Jim Crow restrictions against people of color and their descendants, Tubman worked to advance civil rights, and women’s rights, almost until her death in 1913, in her early 90s.

At first, Quezaire-Presutti found Tubman almost too great a mountain to climb.

“I was very reluctant to do her until one of my colleagues, who organized the New England Living History Festival, said he needed a Harriet Tubman,” Quezaire-Presutti said. “He kept after me, until I said, ‘Let me tell you what: Let me do some research on her and I’ll let you know.’ When I did the research, it blew my mind. This woman had so much going for her. She was a true warrior-humanitarian.”

Quezaire-Presutti had developed an interest in African-American history in the 1960s, while attending the University of Wisconsin’s campus in her native Milwaukee, only to set it aside while pursuing a degree and then a career in social work.

Her passion for the past blossomed again in the mid-1990s, when she left Milwaukee for San Antonio, Texas, with the aim of learning about the black cowboys who helped settle the Wild West. There, she found the local chapter of Toastmasters International, discovered a gift for public speaking and was introduced by the chapter president to bilingual storyteller Consuelo Samarripa.

“I arranged to meet her at one of her tellings, at a library,” Quezaire-Presutti recalled. “I wasn’t sure how I’d find her until I saw this beautiful Spanish woman in a peasant blouse with a stuffed blackbird on one arm and a folding chair on the other. she went to her spot, the kids all sat down in front of her and she just reeled them right in.

“I’m from a family of storytellers, and after seeing her I said, ‘I can do that.’ ”

Quezaire-Presutti started down that road by “going to the library” to conduct research and then becoming an educator at the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Culture. After giving workshops at schools for several years, she became a tour guide at the institute, and wound up diversifying the guidebook’s history of African-Americans in the state “because none was in there before.”

In New England, Quezaire-Presutti turned her research and presentation skills to creating a character in the Connecticut Historical Society museum’s exhibit on La Amistad, a ship that captive Africans seized from its slave-runners off the New England coast in 1839. As an artist-in-residence at the museum, she developed that character, Ruth, as a composite of girls and women who survived the slave-trade crossings, and portrayed her for 10 years.

Along the way, Quezaire-Presutti also crafted one-woman shows about author-folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, enterpreneur Madam CJ Walker and Sarah Harris Fayerweather, a daughter of free black farmers who, became an activist after encountering roadblocks to her efforts to integrate two private schools in Connecticut.

These days, Quezaire-Presutti mostly alternates between the Tubman piece and If I Am Not for Myself, Who Will be for Me?, in which she assumes the role of Oney Judge Staines, who escaped from the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia shortly before her owner, George Washington, completed his presidency.

“I get to pick and choose what goes in the stories,” Quezaire-Presutti said. “I get to tell the stories. It comes with a lot of responsibility. You’ve got to get it right.”

And she wants to make it more than a dry recitation of dates and names out of history.

“Once I start talking and become that person, I can’t explain the feeling that comes to me,” Quezaire-Presutti. “When you’ve got it going, the audience actually leans in.”

Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti portrays abolitionist Harriet Tubman in her one-woman play I Can’t Die But Once on Sunday afternoon at 2, at New London’s Whipple Hall. The Center for the Arts is sponsoring the appearance. To reserve tickets ($7 to $17), visit centerfortheartsnh.org.

Best Bets

Central Vermont-based Green Room Productions stages Broadway playwright Nick Payne’s Constellations at the Grange Theatre in South Pomfret, starting tonight at 7:30 and running through Sunday afternoon. The dramedy follows a couple navigating a quirky romance through the perspective of principles of string theory, relativity and quantum mechanics. To reserve general admission tickets ($25) and learn more, visit artistreevt.org or call 802-457-3500.

■The public libraries of Lebanon, Quechee, Hartford, West Hartford, Wilder, Lyme and Norwich host Hamiltunes, a sing-a-long featuring showstoppers from the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, at Norwich Congregational Church on Friday night at 7. To register to sing with the lead cast onstage, and to reserve seats (admission is free), call the Quechee Library at 802-295-1232.

■Pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Pam Tanowitz Dance ensemble collaborate on an interdisciplinary interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Friday and Saturday nights at 8, at Dartmouth College’s Moore Theater. For tickets ($19 to $50) and more information, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

■The Footworks quintet sets a Cape Breton-style rhythm and Richard Hopkins calls the steps for the contra dance that Muskeg Music is hosting at Norwich’s Tracy Hall on Saturday night at 8. Admission is $8 to $12.

■Woodstock pianist Sonny Saul leads 15 guest performers into ArtisTree Community Arts Center’s Hayloft on Sunday afternoon at 5, for the debut of his Ocalan Suite. The four-part composition plays tribute to Abdullah Ocalan, whom Turkey’s government has imprisoned for 20 years for his activism on behalf of the country’s Kurds and of women’s rights. Performers joining Saul are rapper Erik Dorfman, dancer Tracy Penfield, flutists Danelle Sims, Kathleen Dolan and Ali Dagger, multi-instrumentalist Bill Cole, trumpeter Glendon Ingalls, bassist Peter Concilio, clarinetist Quincy Saul, oboist Sierra Winand, and drummer Pete Michelenie and vibraphonist/Syria drummer Mark van Gulden

To reserve tickets ($15) and learn more, visit artistreevt.org or call 802-457-3500.

■Singer-songwriter Susan Werner performs her mix of razor-sharp wit and high-wire musicianship at Flying Goose Brew Pub and Grille on Wednesday night at 8 and next Thursday night at 8. Reservations are required. For tickets ($25) and more information, visit flyinggoose.com or call 603-526-6899

Looking Ahead

Great Britain’s National Theatre stages its Barber Shop Chronicles at Dartmouth College’s Moore Theater next week, starting on Thursday night at 7. For tickets ($25 to $60) and more information about the show, which explores the lives of immigrants from four African countries through their interactions in a London barber shop, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

■Opera North is offering discounts, through Saturday, on purchases of season passes to its 2019 Summerfest lineup. The festival begins the second weekend of July at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish with five performances on the theme of “Hoedown,” in which circus artists will defy gravity while Summerfest singers belt works of Copland, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and other composers. During the last weekend of July, the opera company will stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at the farm three times. Summerfest concludes in August at Lebanon Opera House, with four performances of Verdi’s adaptation of Macbeth. For discounts of 15 percent on passes encompassing all three shows, visit operanorth.org.

Music

The a capella ensemble Wrensong performs Renaissance music, on the theme of “Longing, Happiness and Regret,” on Sunday afternoon at 2, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley’s church in Norwich. Admission is by donation.

■Donna Byrne sings jazz at the Center at Eastman in Grantham on Sunday afternoon at 4. To reserve tickets ($18 to $20) and to learn more about the Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon series of concerts, visit josajazz.com or call 603-763-8732.

Dance

Gina Capossela and Michelle Girouard are holding free introductory classes in belly dancing tonight at 5:45 at Hanover’s Richard W. Black Community Center, on Saturday morning at 11 at the Carter Community Building Association’s Witherell Center in Lebanon and on Sunday morning at 11 at Dothan Brook School in Wilder.

Film

Northeast Kingdom director Bess O’Brien screens her documentary, Coming Home, at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction next Thursday night at 7. For tickets ($10 to $12) and more information, visit wrif.org. To learn more about the movie, which follows five former prison inmates adjusting to life back in their Vermont communities (including one from Hartford), visit kingdomcounty.org.

Bar and Club Circuit

Singer-songwriter Ericka Cushing covers rock and country classics and plays her original folk compositions at Peyton Place restaurant in Orford, tonight from 6 to 9.

■James Graham & Friends pull into Windsor Station tonight at 7 to play a set of Americana. The Dark Star Project plays favorites from the Grateful Dead songbook Saturday night at 9:30. Guitarist Ted Mortimer performs Tuesday night at 6.

■The Party Crashers rock Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners on Friday night at 8.

■The Strangled Darlings play Americana music at The Skinny Pancake in Hanover on Friday night at 8, and singer-songwriter Daniel Leddick performs on Saturday night at 7:30.

■The weekend lineup at Salt hill Pub in downtown Lebanon features singer-songwriter Jim Hollis on Friday night at 9, and bluesman John Lackard, Saturday night at 9.

■Arthur James sings and plays the blues at Salt hill Pub in Hanover on Friday night at 9, and singer-songwriter Amanda McCarthy performs there on Saturday night at 9.

■The Conniption Fits perform at Salt hill Pub in West Lebanon on Friday night at 9. And on Saturday afternoon starting at 4, guitarist Ted Mortimer serenades the pub’s Saturday Happy Hour.

■The Bob & Shane duo plays acoustic rock at Salt hill Pub in Newport on Friday night at 9, and Chris Powers rocks the house on Saturday night at 8.

Open Mics

String players of all ages and abilities are welcome at the weekly acoustic jam session at South Royalton’s BALE Commons on Friday night from 6:30 to 10.

■Al Carruth and EJ Tretter host the Sunapee Community CoffeeHouse’s monthly open mic on Friday night at 7, in the basement of the Methodist church in Sunapee Harbor.

■Joe Stallsmith leads his weekly hootenanny of Americana, folk and bluegrass on Monday night at 6 at Salt hill Pub in Hanover.

■Woodstock musician Jim Yeager hosts an open mic on Wednesday night at 8 at Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners..

■Fiddler Jakob Breitbach leads an acoustic jam session of bluegrass, Americana and old-timey music on Tuesday nights at 7 at The Filling Station Bar and Grill in White River Junction.

■Tom Masterson hosts an open mic at Colatina Exit in Bradford, Vt., on Tuesday nights at 8.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.comand at 603-727-3304. Entertainment news also can be sent to highlights@vnews.com.