Kentucky was a slave state, although it never joined the Confederacy. However, across the river, Indiana offered a route to refuge. A new show premiering Thursday aims to transport visitors through time to tell the stories of two fictional families pursuing new beginnings.
In “Journeys to Freedom” the Belle of Louisville isn’t just a cruise vessel — it’s center stage. The play combines soundscapes and music that span ages and genres to fully immerse audience members throughout the boat. Sidney Monroe Williams is its playwright and director.
“What we mean by immersive is that it’s happening all around you. It’s not interactive…but we do invite you to come and witness,” Williams said. “Wherever you are on the boat, you can hear original music that is connected to that history. Gambling was really popular on river boats. So we’ve revived a form of gambling called Faro.”
They said performances and multimedia elements will surround attendees from the moment they arrive at the Belle to the time they depart. Visitors will also get “boarding passes” tol grant them access to different scenes staged in usually restricted areas of the riverboat, including the captain’s quarters, a cabin and the roof.
Artist-run nonprofit IDEAS xLab commissioned Williams to develop the play for its (Un)Known Project. The Louisville-based initiative aims to uncover and honor Black names and stories through art.
Hannah Drake, the nonprofit’s chief creative officer, said having the event out on the water is key to engaging audience members with the history of the slave trade and experiences of formerly enslaved people.
“If your state was next to a body, a large body of water, it made it lucrative in the slave trade, which is a history Kentucky doesn’t really talk about,” Drake said. “The dividing line to freedom is the Ohio River. Because if you could make it to Indiana, and hopefully get to the town clock church in New Albany, that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.”
Set after the Civil War, the play follows eight people, most of whom are crossing the river in search of freedom and opportunity. Although slavery was abolished by law, anti-Black violence and racism remained.
“I want to make it difficult for my audience to rest in that [being] the past,” Williams said.
They’re inviting audience members to contemplate parallels between the play’s character arcs and experiences and today’s ongoing fight against racism.
“Hopefully you arrive in this space of where you’re like, ‘Hmm, maybe I can interrogate my own connection to history,’” Williams said. “You are going to have to do some work, you are going to have to answer some questions.”
They hope the show will provoke that kind of introspection.
The play and its characters are works of fiction, but Williams drew from historical events and stories of formerly enslaved people. They said they wanted to encourage audience members to think critically and openly about the subject matter — and to avoid centering the play around Black experiences with violence and trauma.
It’s the culmination of months worth of work, including collaborations with university students and artists, and hosting community listening and feedback sessions.
“People gave me the real tea feedback back in December,” Williams said. “That’s part of being a community-based artist is that you are transparent in your process and invite artists, collaborators and community in. They tell you where you need to improve, and then you improve.”
Drake said Williams’ approach offers nuance into the lives of people who, by design, were left out of and erased from historical narratives.
“Enslaved people were attempting to have a life. That’s it. Whether it be falling in love or having children or laughing or dancing or singing and, as much as they could, they try to find some sliver of happiness,” Drake said.
Williams said their goal was to uplift stories and experiences often untold in historical narratives and records.
“When I was doing my research, I kept being like, ‘Where are the Black queer bodies? And why are our stories not being told?” Williams said. “Then I think it’s my responsibility to start thinking about, ‘Well, what could that look like?’”
Their vision was to create space for and represent all facets of race, gender and sexuality in “Journeys to Freedom.” The show includes a family unit with two female-identifying co-parents and weaves together time periods to explore the influence Black, queer people had in the creation of modern music genres, like house, and where that fits in with telling their stories.
“A couple of characters you’re going to see are very much modern day iterations of Blackness. But how does that work within this recently enslaved time period?” Williams said. “Also, how do some of those mentalities at that time period also still resonate today?”
There will be four shows this month. More information and tickets are available here. The Belle of Louisville gives financial support to Louisville Public Media, which WFPL is part of.
Note: The immersive cruise includes performances that depict slavery and experiences of people who were enslaved, which organizers said may be triggering or upsetting to some viewers.