The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he lives by his wits and earns money performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass-leader of the Virginia Harmonists, a minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles-who senses that Henry's skill and magnetism could restore his show's sagging fortunes.
The problem is that black performers are not allowed to appear onstage, even in Philadelphia. Together the two concoct a dangerous masquerade to protect Henry's identity, and he creates a sensation in his first appearances with the Harmonists. Yet even as the troupe's fortunes begin to improve, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry's former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, dead or alive.