Featured photo: Zuhairah McGill portrays Sojourner Truth in her one-woman show. (Provided by Zuhairah McGill)
Zuhairah McGill is no stranger to Winston-Salem.
“I’ve been to Winston-Salem many times,” she says. “This is just the first time I’ve been invited.”
McGill, based in Philadelphia, has been an avid and longtime supporter of the National Black Theatre Festival. The biennial festival, held this year from Aug. 1-6, brings in thousands of attendees to see more than 130 shows performed by renowned troupes, actors, musicians and stage legends. Past performers and chairs have included Harry Belafonte, Sydney Portier, Ruby Dee, Dr. Maya Angelou and John Amos, among many other legends. 2022 will be the 17th year of the popular festival and is produced by the NC Black Repertory Company.
McGill is familiar with the festival, having attended but not performed in years past. This year though, she is front and center. She’s spent two decades playing the role of the legendary Sojourner Truth, a Northern-born slave who became a leading abolitionist, women’s rights activist and author. Sojourner, a one-woman play written by Richard LaMonte Pierce follows the often-tragic life of Truth, which was fraught with instances of cruelty and abuse. Born a slave at the end of the 18th Century in New York, Truth was sold three times before she had reached the age of 14. One of her owners, John Dumont, abused and repeatedly raped her, resulting in the birth of his child when Truth was 18. When New York legislated emancipation in 1827, she learned that Dumont had sold her son to another slave owner who, in turn, sold him to an Alabama slave owner. With the help of other abolitionists, Truth successfully sued to have her son returned. Her later emergence as a public advocate for former slaves and women only increased her notoriety as the Civil War approached.
Despite the heavy subject matter, McGill has woven the spirit of Sojourner Truth into the fabric of her life.
“It’s an honor,” she says, about returning to the role. “Who she is and who she was to us, I always hope I do it justice. I truly believe she’s with me each time.”
Born to stage performers in New York City, McGill is the founder and producing director of the First World Theater Ensemble in West Philadelphia. In 2002, McGill was nominated for the Barrymore Award forOutstanding Leading Actress after performing as Truth for the first time. Since then, McGill has performed in numerous other productions for stage, has worked in film and has received awards through the years. She’s produced 24 plays for the First World Theater Ensemble and has traveled all over the country to repeatedly reprise the role of Sojourner Truth. She will reprise that role yet again on Aug. 4-5 at Reynolda House Museum of American Art as part of the festival.
As she prepares for her performance, McGill reflects on her accomplished career as both an actor and producer, but nothing helps her get over the nerves. And that’s because of how powerful the piece is.
“It doesn’t matter the venue, it’s the story,” she says. “I’ve performed it in public schools, churches, and large well-known theaters. I always get nervous. After a show I would sit in the dressing room and I would literally be shaking,” she says. “I know that I told an authentic, truthful story.
“There’s something that is taken away each time I perform,” she continues, “but every time, every time she shows up and gives me something more.”
Sojourner will be performed by Zuhairah McGill at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art on Aug. 4-6. Tickets are available at ncblackrep.org
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