Playhouse Square is proud to cultivate new work for young audiences. With the Lied Center of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), Chandler Center for the Arts (Chandler, AZ) and Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Costa Mesa, CA), Playhouse Square co-commissioned NORTH, a musical by Ashli St. Armant, presented this winter as part of our Social Justice Series for student matinee audiences in grades 4-12. NORTH, seen by more than 5000 students over two days at Playhouse Square, follows the story of a precocious teenage boy and his young mother as they escape the Deep South and travel North through the Underground Railroad to seek their freedom.
We asked St. Armant to reflect on her experience creating the show.
NORTH: The Musical by Ashli St. Armant
Creating NORTH: The Musical has been the biggest, most challenging, and most personal work I have ever done. And I never saw it coming.
The inspiration for NORTH began with my first trip to Vacherie, Louisiana where my ancestors were enslaved – just a modern hour’s drive from New Orleans. I was in the area doing research for another project and, since I was nearby, I decided to visit the birthplace of so many of my relatives. I already had the idea of creating a musical about The Underground Railroad, but no real formulated concepts. Then I arrived at Oak Alley Plantation.
As it turns out, this impeccably curated historical site is just down the road from where my enslaved ancestors lived their lives. What I was met with was such a strong sense of … reality. For the first time, I could see my people – our people – from this time period as whole individuals with intricate lives. The love. The laughter. The grief. All of it.
Since then, my ancestors have played an active role in the development of this piece, daring me to tell this multifaceted story of Black life during the antebellum period, which covers a full range of experiences - experiences that led to the birth of jazz.
The more I researched, the more I was struck with the notion that Black American Music is a direct coping response to the Black American experience. Enslave us; we create field songs. Exclude us; we create blues and jazz. Lock us up; it’s Rock & Roll. Abandon us; we give you Soul music.
So, I developed a theatrical experience that allows intergenerational audiences to step into the world of people and music before us – and find something familiar.
People have often asked how NORTH is different from other art I’ve made. But in so many ways, it’s a culmination of all the artistic relationships I’ve built throughout my career. My long-time agent became my co-producer. My dance professor became my choreographer. My band became the orchestra. And the arts organizations who commissioned this work became family.
NORTH gave me my first opportunity to step into a professional producer or directorial position – ever. I’ve developed so many skills and have become fluent in the language of theater because of this experience. But the most impactful thing I’ve learned is a new way to define community. From the performers to the creative team, we all agree that developing this piece in these times has given us a place to collectively cope with the reckoning that is America today.
Which brings me to my favorite part of NORTH – the conversations. When you invest in a show like NORTH, you are investing in the opportunity for conversations in your community. The news is cruel and politics are uncomfortable, but art is magic. With art, everyone is involved, including the audience, and the end of the show is the beginning of the story.
NORTH is our collective story, not just the story of Black folks. Now, more than ever, I’m invested in leading creative experiences that reflect on our story so we can build the next chapter together.
Ashli St. Armant is a jazz vocalist, composer, musician and musical theater playwright. She is known for her award-winning work in children’s education and entertainment, including her band, Jazzy Ash and the Leaping Lizards, and her Audible mystery series, Viva Durant, which includes the New York Times bestselling story, Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons.
For our 2023-24 season, we are producing a series of Social Justice Shorts with award-winning storyteller, poet and playwright Idris Goodwin. To learn more about these short films and other Social Justice Series performances and student matinees, visit https://www.playhousesquare.org/education-engagement-main/plan-a-field-trip/childrens-theater-series-for-schools.