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Cleveland Public Theatre play digs deep into the life of social activist Joan Evelyn Southgate

Joan Southgate Day.jpg
Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theatre
Playwright and actor Nina Domingue portrays Southgate's arc as an activist over a long life.

Clevelander Joan Evelyn Southgate made national headlines two decades ago by tracing the path of the Underground Railroad on foot. A new production tells Southgate’s story on stage through Saturday, May 14, at Cleveland Public Theatre. But, there’s much more to that story than a grandmother on a long walk.

In a 2016 Ideastream interview, Southgate described her 519-mile trek as a spiritual quest, emulating an unimaginable journey by countless people whose names were lost to history.

“It really was this voice of the ancestors,” Southgate said. “It was all about teaching who those Africans were, and how strong.”

Cleveland Public Theatre Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan acknowledged that the idea of a woman in her mid-70s walking all that way was an attractive story for reporters and a great photo-op.

“Part of the reason that story gets told a lot is because it's about a white person's experience of interacting with and connecting with Joan,” Bobgan said. “And this play is not about that.”

The play is called “The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate,” and it explores Southgate’s entire life, from incidents of discrimination she experienced as a child through the historical walks that took her across Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania, New York and Canada. She also founded Restore Cleveland Hope, a non-profit that aims to tell Cleveland’s Underground Railroad history as well as preserve a way station of that history, the 1853 Cozad-Bates house in University Circle.

Bobgan tapped local playwright and actor Nina Domingue to do a show.

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Jeanne Van Atta
CPT's Raymond Bobgan (left) and playwright/actor Nina Domingue (right) pose with Joan Southgate on opening night.

“Joan was speaking about the walk. This had to be maybe four or five years after she had completed it,” Domingue said. “And Raymond was like, ‘Nina, you have to come hear Ms. Southgate, I think you would love her.’”

Domingue was transfixed by this gentle but powerful elder and her remarkable story.

“First of all, she's little like me, and I love it,” Domingue said with a laugh. “And I met her and she is very much who she is every time you meet her. Very warm, very open. And we became friends after that. And I’d go visit with her at least once or twice a month and sit and just talk and have tea and spend time. And one of those times, she walked out with her memoir. And she's like, ‘Nina, I want you to do a show about my life,’ and dropped it in my lap and walked off.”

It wasn’t just a copy of the book, it was the actual typewritten manuscript with Southgate’s handwritten notes. Domingue said she was terrified.

“And I wrapped it in some paper and put it inside a box and kept it safe for about 10 years. And I was like, 'I am not ready to do this,' it just felt too big,” she said. “And then, you know, time passed and life happened, and I had a bunch of kids and it's like, you know, Joan is 90. I should do this soon if I want to do it so that she can get her flowers while she's with us.”

So, Domingue went back to that package of papers and started translating those words into a one-woman stage performance. In one scene, Domingue reenacts to a schoolyard incident from Joan Southgate’s life. A white classmate had just used a racial slur against the young Southgate, prompting a defiant response.

“I know I’m the only colored girl in this whole school, except for Delores, but my family has lived here practically all my life. And if I have to hit you, I will,” the character says, pointing to a gathering crowd of kids. “I don’t want to, but they’ll cheer me on. Things sort out here.”

To Raymond Bobgan, Southgate’s story is much larger than the experience of one person.

“It's not just Joan who's being seen, but it's thousands, hundreds of thousands of women who have gone through many of the same things she's gone through,” he said. “Many people have thought the same way she thinks and can connect with that sense of hope against all odds.”

Nina Domingue said that her goal was to go beyond the ephemeral headlines and dip into something deeper.

“And often, particularly with Black women, if there is something that we've done that is deemed extraordinary, the totality of our life becomes encapsulated in that thing,” she said. “And that's what I didn't want to do.”

And she added that Southgate herself declares that her life story is far from over.

“She actually asked me to change a line in the play,” Domingue said. “She used to say all the time, ‘I'm going to live to be 125.’ And she said, ‘Nina, I've added a year, it's 126.’”

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Jean Van Atta
Joan Southgate, walking stick in hand in 2020.

David C. Barnett is a senior reporter/producer who focuses on arts and cultural stories.