CPT to debut the story of one woman’s 519-mile trek along the Underground Railroad

Cleveland played a large role in the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, helping escaped slaves make their way to freedom and safety. Known as Station Hope, Cleveland offered places of refuge—like Cozad-Bates House and St. John’s Episcopal Church—to those who passed through the city. 

Joan Evelyn SouthgateEvery year, even throughout the pandemic,  Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) produces its Station Hope event, celebrating Cleveland’s social justice history and exploring contemporary struggles for freedom and equality.

This year, In addition to its annual Station Hope programming in May, CPT will produce  “The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate”—capturing one woman’s mission to retrace the paths on the  Underground Railroad and the harrowing stories that came from it.

The play, written and performed by Cleveland actor Nina Domingue, chronicles local activist Joan Evelyn Southgate’s 2002 519-mile journey, at the age of 73, along the Underground Railroad route from Ripley, Ohio to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.

Southgate has spent years researching the railroad and organizing events that highlight this chapter in U.S. history.

Nina Domingue She says she believes in shining a light on the experiences that slaves went through in the mid-1800s, as well as bringing the topic to light at the local level. When Southgate first asked Domingue, a well-known actor and playwright in the Cleveland area, to tell her story, Domingue says she knew this was her calling. 

“[Southgate] just turned 93 this year, and we became friends in that time,” says Domingue. “And she asked me to write a play about her life.”

So. Domingue went about writing “The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate.” 

“There are tons of articles, a book, a documentary all about the walk itself,” Domingue says. “It was very important to me to write about the woman who took the walk.”

Southgate runs an organization called Restore Cleveland Hope, which has helped promote the upcoming play. The organization also worked with Cleveland Restoration Society, Western Reserve Historical Society, and Cleveland Ward 9 City Council member Kevin Conwell on the effort to  restore the Cozad Bates house in University Circle, which sheltered slaves and is the only pre-Civil War house still standing in that area.

In addition to writing the play, Domingue also stars in “Absolutely Amazing.” She says she began writing her own works, including this production, to show her range of skills to theater productions.

Domingue is originally from New Orleans, and her performances in poetry interpretation and duet acting in high school were part of what drove her to the world of theater. She then attended Dillard University in New Orleans, which was the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to offer a theater major. After college, Domingue came to Cleveland.

“My mother’s family is from Cleveland,” she explains. “So after I graduated from Dillard, I had an internship at the Cleveland Play House for a year.” 

Nathan HenryThe experience in the Children’s Theater Series helped launch Domingue’s Cleveland theater career.“ “After we would perform in the morning and finish rehearsal [at Cleveland Play House], I would go to audition at Karamu [House] and Great Lakes [Theater], kind of putting my face out there,” says Domingue.

She credits the CPT team with helping to make the production of “Absolutely Amazing” possible—in particular, director Nathan Henry, choreographer and movement coach Kenya Woods, and composer Bill Ransom.

The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate” opens on Friday, April 22, with a preview on Thursday, April 21. The show runs through Saturday, May 14. 

All tickets are available through CPT’s Choose What You Pay program, ranging from $1 to the standard ticket price of $35. Buy tickets online or by calling the box office at (216) 631-2727, ext. 501 between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Cleveland Public Theatre is located in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District, 6415 Detroit Ave.

Read more articles by Evan Gallagher.

Evan Gallagher has always loved writing and using his creative side for a career is a dream come true. A self-proclaimed news junkie, Gallagher passionately keeps up with current events. When he’s not writing, he enjoys running, playing guitar and keyboard, and spending time with friends.  Gallagher is a journalism major, specializing in news and information, at the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Gallagher is the director of PR/social media for The New Political, one of OU’s online publications, and writes for All Campus Public Radio (ACRN).