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Columbus Symphony Travels The Underground Railroad In 'Sanctuary Road'

Columbus Symphony Orchestra on stage
Columbus Symphony Orchestra

The Columbus Symphony is taking on the Underground Railroad.

This weekend they're performing "Sanctuary Road," an oratorio based on the writings of Underground Railroad conductor William Still. The piece traces the path and struggles of three people who escaped enslavement.

Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell wrote the lyrics of the oratorio. He sayshe found the writings of Still after composer Paul Moravec asked him to write about the Underground Railroad.

"He published a book that chronicled all the slaves that he helped get to freedom, and I started reading it and thinking, 'This is such rich material,'" Campbell said.

Beyond Still, there are three main characters in the opera: Ellen Craft, Henry Brown, and Clarissa Davis. Each escaped slavery through different means—one by disguising herself, one by hiding himself in a crate, and a third by boat.

"I knew where to steal from William Still. They're brilliant accounts," Campbell said. "What I loved about them is how far people would go to achieve freedom. These slaves knew this would be their only chance and they were willing to put their lives at risk to be free."

As the country marks the 400th anniversary of the slave trade's beginning in America, Campbell says the stories are more relevant than ever.

"It's a terrible legacy that we have in this country that we have to deal with," he says. "And we can't hide it, we can't ignore it. The only way we can go forward is to constantly expose it, to discuss it--we have to keep writing about it."

"Sanctuary Road" is being performed as part of the American Festival from October 11-12 at the Ohio Theatre in downtown Columbus. It will also feature a selection from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.