Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Review: A melding of time, generations stirs Sankofa’s “Echoes of Voices of the Eighth”

If you ask the average local resident about the Old Eighth Ward, you may get a puzzled look in return.

This month, Sankofa African American Theatre Company hopes to change that puzzled look to one of understanding by adding knowledge, depth and context to this important, often-lost chapter of Harrisburg history.

Coinciding with Black History Month, Sankofa’s “Echoes of Voices of the Eighth” is a play full of significant historical stories from Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, a racially diverse neighborhood that once thrived prior to its citizens being removed to make way for the Capitol Complex expansion in the early 1900s.

Sharia Benn, the theater’s director/founder and executive artistic director, uses an ensemble cast to pop open a time capsule, stretching across centuries to show a highlight reel of lesser-known stories and people from an area and an era that might have otherwise stayed buried, lost to time.

Demolished in the name of “progress,” the Old Eighth Ward once proudly raised a community of artists, scholars, business owners, civil servants, veterans and activists. Its most notable figures became future leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, the first African American woman to attend Dickinson College, the first Black Civil War correspondent, a lawyer who overturned the segregation of a Harrisburg movie theater, and key members of the suffrage and abolition movements.

First, we meet young Della Carter (Jade Jarrell). She is only 15 years old in the late 1800s, but already in charge of her six siblings and all the chores that come along with them. Her goal is to learn enough of the alphabet to one day write a letter.

The influential people in Della’s life, like her abolitionist aunt Jane Chester (Kirby Davis), her teacher Hannah Jones (Paula Lewis), along with the voices of her ancestors, spur her to make her mark on future descendants. Della takes this on as an assignment.

Then we meet Della’s assignment, a young woman named Kay (Lunden McClain), in present-day Harrisburg. Kay is struggling with a history project, and all the barriers of learning in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Her brother J. (Lyeneal Griffin) encourages her to find the untold stories. He loans her a powerful history book, with a stern warning not to lose it. As soon as Kay takes the book, lesser-known local historical figures—more cornerstone citizens of the racially diverse Eighth Ward—help bring her school project to life.

Kay meets only a sampling of the ancestors and stories connecting past, present and future and hears some of the advice they passed down through the generations. They wish to impart their strength, wisdom and compassion and to plant the desire to speak out for those who have been silenced. Passing that torch is her ancestors’ way of entrusting Kay with future generations to come, with the knowledge that they fought for Kay’s freedom without even knowing her.

I think it’s a challenge for any playwright to arrange a play’s scenes, to say everything they want to say in a sequence that makes it most absorbable for the audience. Benn gave herself the additional task of integrating a large number of stories of Old Eighth Ward residents. This had the consequence of introducing the modern-day descendant about 45 minutes into the play. The delay took me away from the context of the story a bit. It made me think, “So much action has already happened, and we’re only just now integrating the present day?”

Then the symbolism of that hit me. So many of our own ancestors have already lived their lives, spanning the centuries before the one containing us. Their common threads bond them to historic events and to each other, and the threads spinning toward their descendants (us) are only just now being woven. Much like our own human tapestry of stories, the Eighth Ward story collections presented in the play are loosely held together by strands of location and time. And when we tell their stories, we also tell our own.

The time-traveling, ancestor-meeting journey imparts powerful lessons. The play also features original poetry from writers in Sankofa’s Poetry in Place, Monologues in Motion program.

Dramaturge Kim Greenawalt wrote that Benn “is writing the change-making map for the young people in our community, by resurrecting the relatable, positive stories of the historical figures featured in this play.” In this way, young people are able to envision themselves modeled as future prominent community members.

“This story doesn’t end,” Benn said. “Learn the history of the Eighth Ward. There are more stories, more resources.”

“Echoes of Voices of the Eighth” runs Feb. 11 to 20 at Gamut Theatre, 15 N. 4th St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit Also check out Digital Harrisburg for more stories from the Old Eighth Ward and to see the virtual exhibit:

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