Submitted by Cynde Cerf, Chandler Center for the Arts
When artist Ashli St. Armant created North: The Musical it was in response to her sons lacking knowledge about the Underground Railroad. Surprisingly, the topic was included in discussions at school during Black History Month. As a family whose ancestors were enslaved on a plantation in Louisiana, it was important to St. Armant that her boys had a better understanding about this time in their country’s history.
More than a deeper look at slavery and the routes that individuals took to escape the South, NORTH was created to bring humanity to the conversation. The individuals who sought their freedom were multifaceted people who had relationships, struggles, beliefs, families, loves, sorrows, joys. For people who were treated like they were property, the humanity of who they were was stripped away and St. Armant found that modern storytelling of slavery often excludes that complexity of being human; excludes the reality of a multi-generational trauma.
“While doing research, my own ancestry had a significant impact on this work,” says St. Armant. “I visited the plantation where my family had been. I learned so much about the lives of those who had really built the land.”
It was the visit to the plantation, as well as an avenue lined with ancient oak trees that inspired the location of the characters in NORTH and a song called, “Oh What These Trees Have Seen.”
After four years of writing and composing, St. Armant emerged with an original piece of work that follows the journey of a teenage boy named Lawrence and his mother Minnie as they flee the South along the complex network of the Underground Railroad to get to the North.
The work is being made a reality with four performing arts centers across the country co-commissioning the piece. Those centers include Chandler Center for the Arts, Lied Center of Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.), Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Orange County, Calif.) and Playhouse Square (Cleveland, Ohio). Chandler Center for the Arts is one of these commissioning partners; its first time investing in an artist’s work in this way.
“It is exciting to be a part of this project,” says Michelle Mac Lennan, General Manager at Chandler Center for the Arts. “What Ashli has created is stunning. This is a story with incredible heart.”
As a creative who has always had music in her life, St. Armant has built a name for herself in the music industry, writing and performing for youth. As Jazzy Ash and the Leaping Lizards, she and her band have built a following that makes jazz accessible and fun for young people.
“This project has been one of love. All of the pieces have fit in perfectly, and when you add in the voices that have lent themselves to the music…it’s magic,” says St. Armant.
When asked what she hopes people will walk away with when they see NORTH, it is her goal that everyone, no matter who they are, will see that the stories from this time in history are stories that make up all of us.
“I want people to feel like they are part of the story, that is there is significance in seeing themselves or people they know,” says St. Armant. “I hope it gives people a different perspective of this time period. I also hope that people see that jazz music is our history – the story of black folks and our country.”
This is a work of passion, love and soul for St. Armant, as well as the artists and professionals who are helping her make it a reality.
She has big dreams for NORTH. The only venues presenting the show this year are the stages of the four commissioning arts centers. Next year, the production has its eyes on a traditional tour of the show. In two years, the creator is aiming for Broadway.
“It is my dream to be on Broadway,” she says. “For anyone who sees it at Chandler Center for the Arts this year, when you see it on Broadway in a few years, you can say you saw it before it hit it big. You were among the first audiences to experience it.”
NORTH: The Musical made its Arizona premiere on Friday, November 4, 2022, at 7 p.m. with a special opening night that included a reception with the artists. There were two performances on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., ticketholders were invited to talkbacks with the cast following each show.