When Broadway actress Julia Nixon met poet, abolitionist, suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, she felt certain she had unlocked a treasure box.
“My first thought was that this woman was a fictitious character,” Nixon said. “My second thought, when I realized she actually existed, was OMG!”
From there, she would take a journey through poetry, history and the lived experience in the footsteps of a woman revered as “the Mother of Black American literature.”
Nixon, a recording artist with a long-running stint at the popular D.C. supper club Mr. Henry’s, recently completed a two-week run of the musical “The Moment Was Now.” She confides that “living in Frances Harper’s skin” gave her new inspiration about Black women’s power then and now.
Staged in Baltimore at the historic Emmanuel Episcopal Church, “The Moment” takes us back to 1869. Harper was one of five historical characters featured in the show, which also included orator Frederick Douglass (LeCount R. Holmes Jr.) and suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony (Jenna Rose Stein).
The two-hour musical was a potent slice of American history, shining a light on hypocrisy, democracy and possibilities that confronted the country in the late 19th century. Reconstruction, women’s voting rights, the industrial revolution, labor rights and true emancipation of Black people were on the table.
But the big story embedded in the play explores suffrage, race and power — a complex and intractable conundrum that haunts us today.
As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women voting rights next August, the lessons of Frances Harper and a cadre of Black suffragists of the 19th and early 20th centuries are a reminder of the schism between White feminism and Black liberation.
Harper, like many of her contemporaries, was an ardent advocate of universal suffrage. It was inseparable from abolition of slavery and full emancipation of all people beyond the act of voting.
Through a rousing performance in “The Moment,” Julia Nixon demonstrates Harper’s connection with Anthony’s cause (“I’m A Woman”) and the split when Black suffragists throw down the gauntlet with Black men, granted voting rights through adoption of the 15th Amendment (“Not a Straw in the Way”).
Harper (1825-1911) lived a full and productive life. The first known Black woman to publish a short story (“Two Offers,” 1859), her poetry collections have been republished hundreds of times. Harper joined with other Black women including Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells to establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896. That organization, which rarely gets the recognition it deserves, was the forerunner of the NAACP.
Songstress Nixon, herself a poet and playwright, enjoyed a four-year run on Broadway after the departure of Jennifer Holiday, playing Effie in “Dreamgirls.” Her four-octave range equips her with the acumen to traverse musical genres including jazz, gospel, blues urban funk and musical theater.
“This conversation takes me back to the late 1960s and early 1970 in Robinson County, North Carolina,” Nixon reflects. “I was part of the first wave of Black children to integrate the all-white schools in our town. I knew racial hostility firsthand.”
Acknowledging that her experience pales in comparison to the journey of the post-slavery period captured in “The Moment Was Now,” Nixon said, “All I can say is thank you, Frances. You woke me up.”