Harriet Tubman was a busy woman. The 4’10” illiterate former slave made 19 trips back to the South to bring 300 other slaves to freedom in the North and Canada, led troops and missions during the Civil War, fought for women’s rights, was an herbalist, a nurse and founder of a boarding house for the poor, to name some of her accomplishments.
Karen Jones Meadows is also a busy woman. The considerably taller actress is portraying Tubman in a one-woman play she wrote called Harriet’s Return: Based on the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman, at the Castillo Theatre through March 4. Unfortunately, Meadows’s play is crammed with so many details of Tubman’s life that it is hard to follow at times. The script needs editing to eliminate some scenes and enhance and clarify others, and to provide transition.
She also needs to slow down. Under Clinton Turner Davis’s direction, she is in nearly constant motion. She tells Tubman’s story while circling the entire stage repeatedly, even while walking behind the bare trees that represent the forest through which Tubman escaped. I had the feeling I should be running behind her to catch up. This distanced me from the character.
Harriet’s Return is the result of a commission Meadows received in 1983 by Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center to craft a series of one-woman performances entitled "A Living Portrait of Black History." It became fully scripted in 1992, when a youth version was commissioned for Ron Milner's Paul Robeson Theater in Detroit. An adult version debuted in 1995 at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. Both of these scripts were created for other actresses, but Meadows ultimately stepped back into the role and has toured with it widely.
I wish Meadows and Davis could have seen the late Sarah Melici’s Fool for Christ about the life of Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Melici wrote the script with Donald Yonker and performed Day simply and directly. Without much moving around the set, she portrayed Day and the characters in her world through her expressive voice and gestures and a minimum of props and staging. She addressed the audience directly and I always came away feeling I had spent an hour in conversation with Day and that I knew her well.
I felt the same way each time I saw the late Linn Maxwell’s Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light and when I see Casey Groves’s Damien.
The most moving scene for me was when Tubman returns for her beloved husband, John, only to find he has another wife. He closes the door on Harriet and her shock and pain are nicely realized. For the most part, though, Meadow’s performance seemed more head than heart. I did not feel I had spent time with Tubman. Meadows is working hard to get out the information, but she doesn’t capture Tubman’s soul.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.