Mealy and others performed at the February 23rd Black History Month Celebration, held at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga. Taking the stage at the dance museum holding a violin and dressed in the white cotton “plantation suit” and hat like those Northup was known to wear, Mealy embodied the former slave. He complicated the narrative in a way that engaged the audience, pointing out that Irish and Germans had also once been enslaved in the Americas, as had Native Americans. However, Mealyas- Northup posited what made black slaves more vulnerable: “Unlike the Indians, black slaves didn’t know the local flora and fauna. And cold? They will be dependent on slave owners just to keep warm.” He also discussed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851, Northup’s role in the Underground Railroad, and the part played by white abolitionists, such as the colorful character John Brown.
When asked how his performance has evolved since he began, Mealy said, “I’m always learning!” He noted that the song “Roaring River,” played at the film’s beginning by Paul Draper and Janet Foster (a.k.a. JD’s Bow & Banjo) is not, as he had thought, written by Northup (it appears in the book) but was a traditional southern song memorized and transcribed by the author and musician.
Sharing the bill were David Montalvo, Felix Machado and Andre Noel, members of the dance troupe Figures in Flight Released. The men began dancing while incarcerated in Woodbourne Correctional Facility. Since being released from prison, they have performed at venues in the Hudson Valley and New York City area. David Montalvo said dancing has brought into his life the realization that “…freedom is not just about not being incarcerated— being free is about allowing your soul to express itself.” In this way, Montalvo said, dance lets him demonstrate to audiences that “We’re all human, all on the same playing field. It takes courage to break down the barriers, and be who you want to be.” On this afternoon, the dancers performed modern dance—sensitively expressing feelings from frustration to joy—first to an African American work song, then to a moving rendition of “Motherless Child” by John Legend. The performance included choreography by Susan Slotnick of New Paltz.
The event wound down with a soul shaking rendition of “Went Down to the River Jordan” by members of Saratoga’s Mt. Olivet Baptist Church choir. The words were provided to audience members, who joined in singing.
Finally, Johnnie Roberts of the Saratoga Heritage Area Visitor Center, who opened the event by introducing the audience to Solomon Northup’s story, closed with her poem “The Journey.” The poem’s ending evokes the inspiring resilience demonstrated by Northup:
Pain is the great professor,
through it, all gain.
We are our hero,
Spirits housed in flesh,
Awakening each day to find a way.