With a cast of eight actors (including two who are 12 and under), the Riverside Children’s Theatre production of “Steal Away Home” will take audiences on a powerful and unforgettable journey through history and into moments of introspection, humor, dangers and heartwarming joy.
As the action begins, little brothers Amos (Skylar Griffon) and Obie (David Steward III) are with their mama (Kimberly McDowell) in South Carolina as local preacher and peddler (Wilson Pezzuto) reads a letter from her husband, who had managed to purchase his freedom from slavery and traveled to Philadelphia. The city, which was a haven of safety, included a largely Quaker community where abolition was championed and slavery disdained. The letter contained both good news—that he was now able to purchase his wife’s freedom as well—and bad news—that he did not have the funds to purchase his sons.
The preacher notes that one sentence expressing the wish that Amos and Obie could be with him stood out among all the rest and was penned in big bold letters. That is taken as a sign that the sons should make their way through the dangerous journey north to join him, with the support, protection and guidance of the men and women—black and white—who served as way stations in an “underground railroad” to freedom.
Directing a production for youths that deals with the experience of separation, suffering and suppression as well as victories won through determination and faith brought both unique challenges and rewards for Steve Thompson.
“We didn’t want to depict the brutality of slavery in shocking detail, but, at the same time, we didn’t want to sugarcoat it,” he said. “Young people not only have the capacity to understand this issue, but they have serious questions and are seeking answers.”
Thompson is especially pleased with the two young principals of the production. “Amos has the bulk of the lines and carries the plot and drives the action,” he said. “Obie is younger and mostly is responding to what takes place or commenting on it.”
Well-suited to convincingly carry these roles, Skylar exhibits a talent to memorize long blocks of monologue with ease and carries the audience through highs and lows of the saga. At one point, Amos wears a dress in the guise of a girl to outwit a bumbling bounty hunter and lightens the mood when lines delivered out of character have to be repeated in a lilting girlish voice. In another scene, Amos exhibits uncommon grace, risking life and the success of the journey to get help for a slave-catcher who shot himself in the leg. The “reward” for this act of kindness was to be seized and locked up, and Amos is saved only by ever-loyal Obie.
In several scenes, Steward’s delivery and emphasis of his lines bring humorous relief to the audience.
“David has a great sense of comic timing. He knows exactly what he is doing and isn’t afraid to go for it,” said Thompson. “At the same time, he is very perceptive and self-aware and has very advanced social and emotional maturity. When the children are elated to begin their journey to freedom, I reminded him that it meant leaving his mother behind, and David instantly portrayed his sadness.”
The drama and emotion of this saga is heightened by its musical accompaniment—powerful spirituals such as “Steal Away,” “Go Down Moses” and “The Train Song”—sung a cappella under the direction of Mary Thompson, who also plays several roles in the show.
The emotive quality of the drama is also enhanced by the bonds that exist among the cast members. Some of the actors had previously known one another, including Wilson Johnson (who plays five roles), who urged Pezzuto and Taylor Lewis (who plays six roles!) to audition for the show, while McDowell and Olivia Thomas (who plays a kindhearted Miss Melissa) had appeared in other Riverside productions, as Johnson did. Although it was Griffon’s and Steward’s début at Riverside and they had never met before, the actors developed a bond echoing that of the siblings they portray.
The production fulfills the goals with which Mary and Steve Thompson launched the children’s theater 15 years ago, including promoting cultural literacy, furthering educational achievement and engendering civic virtues such as empathy for others.
“The message of the show is that, whatever your background or race or culture may be, all people share a universal desire to be free and the right to control their own lives,” said Steve Thompson. “And it’s a story about the strength that the love of a family can provide when confronted with daunting challenges and dangers—and the willingness to risk your life to be with your family,” said Mary Thompson.