Actor Gwendolyn Briley-Strand takes Carroll Arts Center audience to freedom as Harriet Tubman

Actor Gwendolyn Briley-Strand has played roles in film and TV, including on “House of Cards” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”

But on Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Briley-Strand took to the stage of the Carroll Arts Center in a simple dress and shawl amid a handful of prop rocks and tree stumps, to portray a historic American heroine from Maryland and bring the audience into her time.


“I am going to ask you for the time you are here this afternoon to use your imaginations, and travel back in time with me,” she said. “To the life of one of the greatest heroines and humanitarians in American history, Harriet Ross Tubman.”

Born a slave in Dorchester County in 1822, Tubman would live till 1913, Briley-Strand, told the audience, and after escaping to freedom in the North, would return to the South more than 10 times and lead an estimated 70 slaves to their own freedom.

“She lead so many slaves to freedom, they nicknamed her ‘Moses,’ ” Briley-Strand said. “When the slaves were singing in the field that old spiritual, ‘Go own Moses,’ everyone knew they were singing about a different Moses … Harriet Tubman.”

And so Briley-Strand became Tubman, and in character asked the audience to place themselves in her care on a journey to freedom, telling Tubman’s own story throughout, from her time as a 5-year-old begging God to convert her master, to time as a spy in service of the Union Army.

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“In a moment, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and to pretend to be a band of runaway slaves. Who have made the difficult choice, to escape from their masters,” she said. “On the plantation you heard of this woman called Harriet Tubman, who every calls Moses because she lead so many of those people to Canaan, the promised land, freedom in the North. And you’re hoping she will take you too.”

The audience went with her.

“She made the person come alive,” said Dwight Harry, of Finksburg, who said he had come to the performance out of interest after visiting the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge. “And powerful voice, my goodness. From the first words she sang there, it just sort of grabbed you.”

Mary Howard, of Westminster, came to the performance because she was inspired by the things Tubman did in her life, and what was required of her in order to be able to accomplish so much.

“She had her wits about her; she used her surroundings to do what she wanted to do; she navigated by the stars; she waded through the waters — all those things,” Howard said. “It should give an African-American, or anyone, enough courage that if she can do that — if you have the will — it’s there. You just have to keep on.”

Keagan Willis, 9, and her grandmother Janet Mathias, both of Westminster, came to the performance because of their mutual interest in Tubman.

“We saw the name up on the billboard a couple of weeks ago and she said, ‘Oh, I’d like to see that,’ ” Mathias said. “It was excellent, just great.”

“She really defined the history of Harriet Tubman,” Wills added, of Briley-Strand’s performance. “It’s just so crazy what had happened in that time.”

It was the second year in a row that the Arts Center had hosted some sort of performance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, according to Director of Programs Andy Woodard. It’s something he said is being considered as an ongoing tradition.

“Historically we’ve done a film on MLK Day,” he said. “I think we would like to continue exploring meaningful, live social and civil rights things this time of year. The movies are great — there are some really great movies out there — but we want to add more to our repertoire.”