It will be a little bit of a family reunion when Juno-nominee Khari Wendell McClelland returns to Windsor to host two performances of Freedom Singer at The Capitol Theatre on Friday (Sept. 29). The concert version of the highly acclaimed play will have his mother, brother and cousins in attendance and brings the local Underground Railroad story close to home.
Freedom Singer is a documentary-style piece of theatre that blends Khari’s original music with 1850s freedom songs, verbatim interview excerpts, and first-hand stories. It tells of McClelland’s journey to find the music that would have accompanied his great-great-great-grandmother, an escaped slave who walked to Ontario, lost her legs to the cold, had two children with a British-Canadian, then returned to Detroit after emancipation.
“Whenever I come back to Southern Ontario and the Detroit region there’s a resonance in my bones, especially in the summer when I feel the heat and humidity,” McClelland told YQG Rocks. “It takes me right back to when I was a kid spending my time on the Detroit River. Also, knowing my family’s history of being in the area for such a long time – it just hits me when I come back.”
Khari’s family history is deep-rooted in Freedom Singer. In 2015, he retraced the steps of his great-great-great grandmother Kizzy and discovered the songs that likely accompanied her and thousands of others as they escaped U.S. slavery. He used information documented by journalist Jodie Martinson on CBC’s The National and Tapestry to help create the music for the show. In Windsor, Kizzy will have her moment to shine back home.
“It’s very emotive music,” he explains. “It’s stirring at times because you can’t talk about selling children and not feel like it’s disturbing – but it’s also very victorious when we start to tell the story of people freeing themselves from slavery and bondage.”
In sharing the music, which is reinvented through contemporary styles like hip hop, funk and soul, Khari is brought face to face with his own unrecorded heritage and the realities and myths of one of our quintessential historic narratives: the Underground Railroad.
“It’s very much Kizzy’s story,” he adds. “However, we often see the Underground Railroad as a defining narrative of Canada during a time when people attempted to create a safe harbor for others who were fleeing from tyranny.”
There were conversations about Kizzy and his family’s history when Khari was growing up, but as a young child he didn’t pay much attention to them. Eventually he reached a point in his life when he started to miss his family and needed to rediscover his roots. Freedom Singer became part of that process and a way for Khari to reconnect.
“I can feel Kizzy’s presence sometimes, especially when I’m in the Windsor/Amherstburg area, and I hope she can feel that she’s being honoured in this show,” he says. “For me, it feels like I’m turning ghosts into ancestors. It’s like taking disembodied souls and giving them a voice again.”
Freedom Singer premiered in Toronto in February 2017 and then toured Regina, Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa. Along with Windsor, this Fall Tour will also visit Vancouver, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Gananoque and Edmonton.
Co-created by Khari and Project: Humanity’s Andrew Kushnir, Freedom Singer will be performed by Khari, along with another JUNO nominee, Toronto soul singer Tanika Charles, and acclaimed Vancouver guitarist Noah Walker.
Freedom Singer takes place on Friday, Sept. 29 at 2 and 8pm. Tickets are $25 for each performance and are available online or at the box office.