Ask Tamiko Washington about Harriet Ann Jacobs, the character she portrays in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," and the conversation turns to heroism.
"I love the lady; I really do," Washington said by phone after Saturday's performance. "I mean, I can't think of anyone in the present day who could do what she did, who would compare to this lady. She faced tremendous (hardships) but overcame them . . . she's inspiring."
Jacobs is the focus of Tamiko's one-woman show at Irvine Valley College through next weekend in recognition of Black History Month. Adapted by Deanna and Jon Sidoli from Jacobs' autobiography, the play describes Jacobs' life as a slave in North Carolina, her years as a fugitive and her eventual freedom.
The production is useful as a history lesson, a reminder of a time that almost seems incomprehensible now, but it should also be viewed as a testament to personal courage, noted Washington, a Los Angeles actress who teaches drama at UC Irvine and has appeared locally in productions at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
"You can't overlook what happened back then, but (the play) also has to do with our capability to overcome things," she said. "Look at this lady and understand your own power, (and that) can help you overcome the worst suffering imaginable."
Jon Sidoli, an IVC drama instructor who also directed the show, said: "It's an eerily relevant story of a woman's struggle to be free of domination and degradation in the face of an oppressive culture."
Washington said her own brushes with bigotry helped her prepare for the role.
"I can't identify with the ordeal she went through, but I have had to deal with racism, little ounces of it here and there," she said. "I had to rise above the situation and not get trapped (by the anger that can come from these encounters). That's the kind of willpower Harriet had, (and) realizing that figured in how I approached her."
Reflecting on the opening weekend, Washington said she was gratified by the good turnout and especially by how many young African Americans were present.
"It's great to see them out there because they get to have an idea about their culture," she said.
"Also, it's great to see them coming to the theater because you wonder if they'd be interested in it. I think (most people) go to the movies these days (and) miss out on what drama has to offer."