By Srianthi Perera
Southern California designer Ashli St. Armant, had plans to write a musical about the Underground Railroad.
She hadn’t found the setting for it until she visited the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, where some of her ancestors worked as slaves in the 1700s.
Two rows of magnificent oak trees create a grand front walkway and the guide remarked, “Can you imagine what those trees saw and witnessed?”
“That was it for me,” St. Armant said. “My ancestors came in and they said ‘we’ve got this!'”
His ancestors may be appeased when the Chandler Center for the Arts presents “North, The Musical” in early November.
Chandler joined three other cities across the country to commission the theatrical debut of St. Armant, which she created and directed and produced by actor Isaiah Johnson of “Hamilton” and “The Color Purple.”
But St. Armant has set its sights on Broadway.
A composer, musician, jazz singer, musical theater playwright, author, and youth educator among other skills and talents, St. Armant began her career as a preschool music teacher and soon began writing content for young audiences. .
An exuberant only child, she grew up surrounded by many children as her mother ran a home daycare. Musical instruments, fantasy and children’s entertainment were part of his household culture.
She could not escape the influences of her childhood.
As a teenager, she wanted to be a star on Broadway. She still feels it’s within her grasp, even though the path has been circuitous, with lots of distractions.
“I feel like Dorothy: she has these discoveries and makes new friends along the way, she has distractions and thinks it’s a waste of time, but in the end she realizes it was really purpose of the trip,” she said.
“That’s how I feel about my journey to Broadway, too. I believe it’s going to happen. I’ve had these extremely fruitful and rewarding experiences along the way,” she added.
Saint-Armant has been driven by the response to the “North” so far. She relied on her multifaceted skills and creative community to put it together and considers it her greatest achievement to date.
“It’s been the biggest feat even to get there,” she said. “It’s the biggest team I’ve had to build, the most money I’ve had to raise, the biggest audience reach we’re trying to reach across the country, and also to try to get on Broadway and make those Connections.”
Rightly, she is also proud of it.
“I’m proud of everything I do, but it’s definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever created,” she said. “To see so many people get something out of it, already enjoying it, and it hasn’t even really come into play yet.”
How did Chandler, who is not on the Underground Railroad, get involved in the creation of the musical?
Michelle Mac Lennan, executive director of the Chandler Center for the Arts, said she got to know St. Armant after performing a virtual concert through the Dandelion Artists agency during the pandemic. For the gig, St. Armant wore the hats of childcare specialist and entertainer, working as Jazzy Ash & the Leaping Lizards.
“We fell in love with her voice, her immense talent, her joy and her energy,” said Mac Lennon.
After the pandemic, the center caught up with Dandelion Artists producer Sarah McCarthy.
“She shared Ashli’s new project and the rest, as they say, is history,” Mac Lennan said.
The Chandler Center for the Arts commissioned the musical with the Lied Center of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, and Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Chandler Center deal included an initial investment of $40,000, Mac Lellan said. In turn, the CCA will host the premiere in Arizona on November 4 and will have the right to return the production during the 2023-24 season as part of the national tour.
The original score for ‘North’ features jazz and black roots music and an uplifting story set against the backdrop of the Underground Railroad, a historic network that helped slaves escape to Canada in the years before the Civil War. .
The musical’s characters, Lawrence and his mother, Minnie, escape from the Deep South and travel North to find freedom. They travel through the bayous of Louisiana, bustling New Orleans and the young town of Lawrence, Kansas. The story reflects the optimism, bravery, wonder and suspense of freedom seekers.
“North” absorbs the personal stories of the St. Armant family.
She discovered the Maroon community, people who escaped slavery but instead of traveling north, hid in the bayous of the forests. An acquaintance sent him a book, “The Exiles of Slavery”, which contained a passage about a man named Tam, a community leader called “the brave”. He would work for non-slavery plantation owners and be brave enough to raise money.
“The passage says he was enslaved on the same plantation as my family members, in a 1780 account. He fled from the St. Armand plantation,” she said. “It was quite shocking to read that.”
Tam became a main character in the series.
There is also the coincidence of his name. She had changed her name to reflect her family’s maternal line, Armand. The change was made before she read the book. Slaves took the names of their masters, but were denied the “Saint” on their name.
“I learned that my surname was Armand. I changed it to Saint Armant, the original surname of France,” she said, reflecting the French Saint Armand, the patron saint of beer, winemaking and hospitality.
Due to these and various other serendipitous events, St. Armant feels a spiritual connection to the show she creates.
“I don’t think it was by accident that this information came to me, that he (Tam) was also enslaved on a plantation where my family members were also enslaved,” he said. she declared. “And because of the nature of our history here in the United States, we really don’t know our family line beyond four or five generations tops because our history has been erased for us, our last names have been taken , and all that.”
“I can’t know for sure, but I think I know,” she continued. “At the very least, he shares an experience that my ancestors also had on the same land.”
If you are going to
What: “North: The Musical”
When: 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 4 and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Where: Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler.
Tickets: $32 and $42, $15 for youth.
Information/sales: chandlercenter.org/north or 480-782-2680.
10 a.m. Oct. 22 at the Chandler Public Library: “The Underground and Overground Railroad” presented by Dr. Tamika Sanders.
Nov. 4 I the Gallery of the Chandler Center for the Arts, opening night post-show reception for ticket holders.
November 5 at the CCA: “North: The Musical Talk Backs”, after the two performances on Saturday.