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PLAY SPOTLIGHTS LOCAL ROLE IN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

When Gov. George Pataki mandated in October 1997 that the history of the Underground Railroad movement be taught in all New York state public schools, it's certain he didn't have Margaret Laurie in mind.

But Ms. Laurie, a retired Niagara County Community College English professor, took notice nonetheless. Within months, she had completed work on "Freedom Passage," a full-length play documenting the slaves' freedom flight along secret Niagara County corridors.

Her work will debut Sept. 23 and Sept. 24 at Lewiston-Porter High School, 4061 Creek Road, Youngstown, and will also play Oct. 7 at the Stella Niagara Education Park, 4421 Lower River Road, Lewiston.

Show times are 7 p.m. and the cost is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children under 12. Group rates are available by calling 754-4295 or 754-1148.

Although spokesmen told Ms. Laurie that previous commitments made it impossible for Pataki to attend a performance, his historic Freedom Trail Act will be honored at the presentation by the Western Door Playhouse, an ensemble group of primarily Niagara Falls and Buffalo actors.

"I started researching this in October 1997," shortly after the Freedom Trail Act was signed, said Ms. Laurie. "I had the first scene done within three months, then took another four or five months to finish it off.

"It all started with Pataki. I thought it would be a neat idea for Niagara Frontier schools to get the credit for making a to-do about all this," hence the decision to debut the play at the two local schools.

The play will also be taped by Adelphia Cable for marketing across the state, Ms. Laurie said.

A Lewiston native, Ms. Laurie describes her play as an "upbeat" work, focusing on the heroics of not only the fleeing slaves, but also of the local people who harbored them and ushered them to safety in Canada.

"It's a tribute to courageous people, people willing to work," she said. "It's a tribute to courage and the American love of freedom."

The play meanders from the Tuscarora Indian Reservation to the Root family farm to the Niagara River gorge, tracing the exploits of a number of the estimated 30,000 slaves who discovered freedom by crossing the river into Canada.

"The Niagara region became known as a place where you could make it to freedom," Ms. Laurie said.

She researched the project extensively and learned that the local Tuscarora Reservation played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement.

"I couldn't find (any) names because the Underground Railroad was very secretive and the Tuscaroras didn't record anything," she said.

A one-room cabin on the reservation was a key hiding spot for the fleeing slaves and portions of the play are set there, she said. Some of the slaves are followed to their eventual settlements in Toronto and St. Catharines, Ont.

Some 55 characters are featured in all, she said.

"Fortunately we are a repertory company," Ms. Laurie said, because many actors play more than one part.

"Freedom Passage" is the third play she's composed on the history of the Lewiston-Youngstown area. "Blood on the Western Door" chronicles the area through the War of 1812, and "Center's Stages" documents the rebuilding of Lewiston, she said.

Swannee Welsh, her co-producer on "Freedom," said that the plays will be performed annually on a rotating basis. The Western Door Playhouse is a non-profit organization with hopes of constructing a theater in the Lewiston-Youngstown area, where such shows could be staged.

Ms. Welsh, a Los Angeles native who recently moved to the area, said she met Margaret Laurie at a production of her first play and thought that assisting with future endeavors "would be a great way to meet people."

"We both love the theater and decided we would love to do this," she said. "We have to do everything but say the lines." That includes assembling costumes, raising funds -- even transporting actors to and from rehearsals.

Although somewhat disappointed that Pataki won't attend ("He's too busy trying to promote a presidency for himself!" she declares), Ms. Laurie said, "We're inviting all state and local officials to attend and pay attention."

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