Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Characters of Crossing, Part I: Freedom Trains

"Freedom Trains"

Part One in a series exploring the history and characters behind Signature’s world premiere of Crossing, by Matt Conner and Grace Barnes

“Come my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world ….
To strive, to seek, 
to find, and not to yield.”

Do you recall the thrill of anticipation in your youth when you witnessed an approaching train at the station? The clarion call of the whistle, the deep chug-chug of the metal beast as it lumbered forward, the smell of smoke burning your nose?  “Trains tap into some deep American collective memory,” wrote historian Dana Frank. Wikipedia lists over 1,000 songs about trains, and there are countless movies and books about the railroad. Trains captivate our imagination because they represent a call to discovery, the triumph of technology, and the beginning of a journey.

Signature’s new musical Crossing, featuring music and lyrics by Matt Conner and book by Grace Barnes, resurrects characters from pivotal moments in America’s history and weaves their stories into unexpected encounters on the platform of a train station. One of these characters is a Civil Rights Marcher, played by actress Ines Nassarra.

Listen to Ines' Story and get behind-the-scenes preview of Crossing
Harriet Tubman

“They’re calling them freedom trains
They’re calling them America
Saying there’s a time for change.”

Evoking a different kind of railroad, the Civil Rights Marcher remembers the journey of Harriet Tubman and “the Underground Railroad.” Fugitive slaves trying to escape used terminology from the newly-established train industry as a code for safehouses and supporters on the road North. They found their way using the North Star, called "The Drinking Gourd." The greatest conductor was Harriet Tubman, who crossed the Maryland border 13 times to help over 70 slaves escape, earning her the nickname “Moses.” She claimed, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.

Listen to Ines' song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," referring to the Big Dipper constellation that guided escaping slaves to the North and freedom:

A hundred years later in 1963, an equally dangerous journey was happening for African Americans. A group of black and white activists developed a daring plan to ride buses across state lines in the Deep South to test the new desegregation laws.  In Alabama, the buses were halted by a 200-person mob that slashed the tires and threw a firebomb into the bus. Despite the danger, over the summer more people traveled South to make “Freedom Rides,” eventually causing the Interstate Commerce Commission to make guidelines enforcing integration in all public bus terminals.

"Freedom Riders" bus burned by mob in Alabama

That fall another momentous journey occurred as 250,000 people of all ages and skin colors traveled to Washington, D.C. for the biggest demonstration in our nation’s history. President Kennedy claimed that the Civil Rights Bill would meet less resistance if African Americans just stayed quiet, but the time for silence had passed. The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed over the courageous crowd as they looked forward to their destination “when all God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'

Civil rights marchers stand in reflecting pool, Aug. 28th, 1963

  Crossing, A New Musical, by Grace Barnes and Matt Conner, opens on October 29, 2013 and closes Sunday, November 24. Check back next week for more about this exciting new musical.

For ticket information, visit




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