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Peculiar Sam (or The Underground Railroad)
by Pauline Hopkins

Directed by Arminda Thomas; Dramaturgy by Celia Braxton

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On Her Shoulders is pleased to present a staged reading of Peculiar Sam, or The Undergound Railraod, by Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930), directed by Arminda Thomas on Thursday, March 15, 2018 . Doors open at 6:45pm. The Play in Context, which situates the script in its historical time and place, kicks off the evening at 7pm with an Introduction by dramaturg Celia Braxton . Admission is by Donation. Running time, including a post-performance Q&A is approximately 100 minutes. The performance is at The New School, Wollman Hall, 65 West 11 Street, New York, NY. R.S.V.P. to

PAULINE ELIZABETH HOPKINS (1859-1930) was an African-American novelist, journalist, playwright, historian, and editor. She was born in Portland, Maine to free parents of color who moved to Boston during her childhood years. At the age of 16, Hopkins began her career as a stage performer debuting with the Progressive Musical Union, a Boston choral group. Two years later, she was selected to be the lead actress in the stage production of Pauline or The Belle of Saratoga. By 1879 Hopkins and her family created the Hopkins Colored Troubadours, a musical troupe that accompanied her on national tours where she starred in musical dramas including ones she wrote. Slaves’ Escape or The Underground Railroad (which later became Peculiar Sam) is considered to be the earliest extant play by an African American woman. Hopkins is best known for four novels and numerous short stories which she published between 1900 and 1903. Her short story Talma Gordon (1900), is often named as the first African-American mystery story and she is also considered a pioneer in her use of the romantic novel (Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, 1900) to explore social and racial themes. Through a substantial body of fiction and nonfiction that addressed black history, racial discrimination, economic justice, and women’s role in society among other topics, she emerged as one of the era’s preeminent public intellectuals.

Peculiar Sam was written as a benefit for the then famous minstrel Sam Lucas. The central character was created by Lucas, and Hopkins planned her text around 16 different vocal numbers using plantation songs, ballads, and spirituals as the basis for her score. It documents the lives of several escaped slaves; scenes take place at various stops along the underground railroad, and the final scenes show them as successful professionals in different walks of life. Peculiar Sam premiered at the Boston Young Men's Christian Union on December 8, 1879. For a year, the show toured under the management of Z.W. Sprague, a white minstrel and impresario. In July 1880 the play, revised into three acts and staged by Hopkins with the Hyers Sisters Combination, was a huge success at Boston's Oakland Gardens.

ARMINDA THOMAS (Director) is a dramaturg, director, writer, and musician, with a passion for old tunes and new plays—particularly plays which give voice to diasporic experiences. In her 20-year career as a dramaturg, it has been her fortune to work on such diverse world premieres as Adrienne Kennedy's Obie winning June and Jean in Concert (Signature Theatre), Ossie Davis' A Last Dance For Sybil (New Federal Theatre), Jason Michael Webb & Lelund Thompson's The First Noel (Classical Theatre of Harlem), and Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of Toni Morrison's Jazz (Baltimore Center Stage). She is also the writer/adapter of Shakespeare's Women, a” remix” of several Shakespearean works. Ms. Thomas holds an MFA in dramaturgy and script development from Columbia University, and is currently associate artistic director and resident dramaturg for the Going to the River Festival and Writers' Unit.

CELIA BRAXTON, PH.D. (Dramaturg) is Senior Dramaturg for New Perspectives Theatre’s Women’s Work Project and has been with WWP since its inception. Work with WWP includes director/dramaturg for Jake, by Sandra A. Daley-Sharif, and An Apple a Day, by Heather Jeanne Violanti.  She was dramaturg for Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion during On Her Shoulders first season, and for Mae West’s SEX in 2014. Elsewhere, she has helped devise numerous one-person shows, including initial work with Stephanie Berry on her Obie-winning The Shaneequa Chronicles, and a dance/drama adaptation of Macbeth with the Avalon Theatre of e/Motion. Celia has presented at numerous academic conferences. She teaches at CUNY Start, an intensive remedial program at Queensborough Community College, and in the Theatre program at LaGuardia Community College.

ON HER SHOULDERS was founded in 2013 to present rehearsed, staged readings of plays by women from across the spectrum of time, with contemporary dramaturgs contextualizing them for modern audiences. The program seeks to make it impossible to deny or ignore the 1,000-year history and value of women's contribution to the theatrical canon. To date (through Dec 2016), the program has presented 30 plays by 26 writers from the years 1668 to 1966.  OHS is produced by Melissa Attebery and Melody Brooks. Kristin Heckler is Associate Producer.

SCHOOL FOR DRAMA AT THE NEW SCHOOL: The creative home for the future of performing arts. Agile. Engaged. Innovative. Multi-disciplinary. The New School for Drama is home to a dynamic group of young directors, writers, actors, creative technologists, and award-winning faculty. With a core belief in rigorous creativity and collaborative learning, our programs embrace civic awareness across performance disciplines to create work imbued with professionalism, imagination and social context. For more information, please visit


The Play in Context, the dramaturgical and scholarly presentation component to the program, is sponsored in part by the League of Professional Theatre Women, a non-profit organization promoting visibility and increasing opportunities for women in theatre since 1982.


This program is made possible, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and in part, with public funds from the NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.