Showing posts with label HARRIET TUBMAN'S LEGENDARY LIFE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HARRIET TUBMAN'S LEGENDARY LIFE. Show all posts

Monday, January 08, 2018


Karen Jones Meadows As Harriet Tubman

NEW YORK -- At a time when the USA is waffling on its commitment to honor Harriet Tubman with her image on the 20 dollar bill, Woodie King, Jr.'s New Federal Theatre will present "Harriet's Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman," written and performed by Karen Jones Meadows. The production takes audiences on a deeply personal, high energy journey into the private and public life of this famed Underground Railroad conductor, spiritual icon, revolutionary, and entrepreneur, whose life spanned nine decades and still influences the consciousness of people throughout the world. The production is directed by Clinton Turner Davis and will take stage February 8 to March 4 at Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street.

Harriet Tubman, a diminutive (4'10"), illiterate former slave from Maryland, is the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad. After achieving her own freedom, she made 19 journeys back to southern territory to lead enslaved people to the Northern states and Canada. She led troops and missions during the Civil War, helped pioneer the women's rights movement, and was recognized in her lifetime for her leadership in a male-dominated world. An herbalist, nurse and entrepreneur, she acquired 25 acres of land in Auburn, NY when women and African-descended people were not "allowed" to do so. She supported schools and hospitals and ran a boarding home for the needy and elderly.

Recently, there has been a wave of renewed interest about Tubman. In 2014, President Obama signed legislation clearing the way for the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, NY and another site with ties to Tubman in Cambridge, Md., to become part of the national parks system. In 2016, actress Viola Davis was chosen to play her in an HBO film. The same year, the Treasury Department announced plans to replace Andrew Jackson with Tubman on the $20 bill. But in August, 2017, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cast these plans into doubt, saying "It's not something I'm focused on at the moment." Activists have hoped for the currency change to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, in 2020.

Playwright/actor Karen Jones Meadows, an authority on Tubman in her own right, is pretty sure that Tubman would have stood above the fracas. Also, that Tubman would have been more interested in people understanding their economic power and rights than having her picture on the note. "During the period of enslavement, there was a great injustice in the deprivation of financial education, resources and accessibility," she declares. This and other agonies tore at her as she wrote the play, working, as she relates, from the inside out. "I'd bemoan the emotional savagery of digging through the period of enslavement--it would make my solar plexus so raw with feelings that my torso ached," she wrote. The play evolved, over a period of 24 years, into a piece that emphasizes the power of trusting your right to freedom no matter what is enslaving you and asserting there is no limit to what you can accomplish.

The playwright/actress, who is somewhat taller (5' 3") than Tubman, trained in Boston and New York. She joined the Boston Black Repertory Company, where she did her first professional shows. Upon moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, she was active in the Performing Arts Guild Ensemble (P.A.G.E.), where she started writing poems that turned into plays and had her first one, "Rounding Off Time," produced. Subsequently she became active with GM Productions there. Although she was performing leading roles (including "Wedding Band" by Alice Childress) and made 29 commercials, her writing gradually took priority over her acting. "Harriet's Return..." originated in 1983, when she was commissioned by Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center to craft a series of one-woman performances entitled "A Living Portrait of Black History." Aiming at a wide variety of audiences, she created well-researched, unscripted, semi-rehearsed, extemporaneous performances on Phyllis Wheatley, Queen Nzinga and Lorraine Hansberry (whom she resembled), but her fourth one, about Harriet Tubman, was always most in demand.

In the nineties, her Harriet Tubman play found its way to the page. Around 1992, playwright Ron Milner commissioned Meadows to write a Harriet Tubman script for a youth outreach program of his Paul Robeson Theater in Detroit. An adult version debuted in 1995 at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. Both were written for others to perform. Versions featuring other actresses were presented by The Acting Company, Crossroads Theatre, Urban Stages and Geffen Playhouse, The Kennedy Center and Capitol Rep. Meadows didn't perform role of Harriet again until the Hawaii chapter of The Links, a Black women's social service organization, scheduled the play for a benefit and Meadows stepped back into the role. Since then, she has traveled with it through many states and a few other countries in a production directed by Jake Walker and designed for touring by David Ode. New Federal Theatre's production will have Meadows' "definitive" text and will be directed by Clinton Turner Davis, expanding on the staging by Walker.

Much of Harriet's dialogue is written in a dialect that amazes audiences. Meadows is hard pressed to explain its origin, other than saying that she has a ear for locution and can sense language and speech patterns based on characters in her head. She has southern roots and has visited plantations and auction blocks and has "heard" the people who were once there. Director Clinton Turner Davis explains, "The play begins with Harriet speaking in standard English as a person taking us on a journey, then subtly the language and syntax shift into a vernacular of the region and period of the play. The rhythms of speech change markedly, but still maintain the essence of the thought and the idea. For me, this is an interesting journey in and of itself. It speaks on many levels to all aspects of the African diaspora."