From 1936 to 1938 the FWP collected more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. As part of the FWP — which itself was a part of the Works Progress Administration, a public-works agency created under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program — these narratives were assembled and microfilmed, and in 1941 they became the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” Harrison decided to breathe life into the musical’s whistling and singing nonentities using the lives and experiences — the very words — of these emancipated survivors of American slavery.
“I read these stories, the narratives. Some of them were amazing, and some were oh my god! I had to detach myself in order to process them. And I want the Japanese audience to be able to do the same,” Harrison says. “I don’t need to tell the story of slavery to black people. We’re not all experts but we have the background, the history. For us it’s personal. But if the story is something that’s blatantly banging people over the head, then it’s not comfortable and they won’t process it."