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.”
Reviewing Meadows’ performance at Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ, NY critic Gwen Orel wrote in Baristanet, “It’s an inspiring piece on any day…Meadows is a marvel, wonderful to look at and riveting to hear. In the space of moments, Meadows turns from a cruel overseer to an older mother to a winsome child. Her depiction of life under slavery shows us cruelty, as expected, but also humor and love among the quarters. Her Harriet has courage, energy and natural exuberance.” J. McCart wrote in Drama-Logue, “‘Harriet’s Return’ is theater as a textural historic journey, lucid in story through character and resplendent with images of the mind. It is a theater experience not to be missed”
Meadows’ other notable plays include “Henrietta” (Negro Ensemble Company, 1985; Drama League of New York Play Writing Award), “Tapman” (Hudson Guild, 1989, with Moses Gunn, six AUDELCO nominations), “Sala Cinderella” (1996, an African Cinderella tale, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte) and “Major Changes” (1989, Cornerstone Play – Penumbra Theater, Minneapolis; workshop reading at New Federal Theatre in 1990). “Henrietta” is included in “The National Black Drama Anthology, Eleven Plays from America’s Leading American American Theaters,” edited by Woodie King, Jr. Karen Jones Meadows was awarded the McGee Professor of Writing Award from Davidson College for her body of work in 1995. Other awards include W.K.Kellogg Foundation Expert in Residence, New York Drama League Award and Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Short Comedy Film Award.
Clinton Turner Davis (Director) began his career with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1972 as production stage manager for “The Great Macdaddy,” followed by a succession of Negro Ensemble Company productions. On Broadway, he stage managed “Treemonisha” and “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” His directorial debut was New Federal Theatre’s production of “Divine Comedy” by Owen Dodson in 1975. In the 1990s, he was assistant to Woodie King, Jr., Associate Producer and a board member of New Federal Theatre. His 1996 revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” for New Federal Theatre received six AUDELCO awards including Outstanding Production and Direction. For Negro Ensemble Company, he has directed “Abercrombie Apocalypse: An American Tragedy,” “Puppetplay,” “Two Can Play,” “House of Shadows” and “The Serious He-Man Ball.” In 1986, Davis co-founded Non-Traditional Casting Project, which advocates for increased employment of ethnic, women and disabled artists. His notable regional credits include “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson and “One Night…” by Charles Fuller, which deals with issues of sexual assault in the U.S. Armed Forces. His 1994 production of Carlyle Brown’s “The African Company Presents Richard III” for The Acting Company earned AUDELCO awards for Outstanding Direction and Ensemble. He is an associate professor of drama at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and has been a guest lecturer at Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Ohio State University, and Howard University and has directed at Juilliard and Brandeis, among others. He received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University. Other prizes include Dallas Theatre, Bay Area, Barrymore and Drama-logue awards. He lives in Brooklyn.
Lighting design is by Antoinette Tynes “T.” Set design is by Chris Cumberbatch. Costume designer is Ali Turns. Stage manager is Bayo.
I have mixed feelings about solo shows, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Karen Jones Meadows’ one woman show Harriet’s Return (written and performed by Meadows under the direction of Clinton Turner Davis). But once the show got going, I just found myself wishing it would never end. Playing Harriet Tubman from age six to ninety (and other characters), Meadows’ performance surges with power, catching the passionate, fighting spirit of Harriet herself. It’s a power that transcends time and place and finally passes from Harriet to the audience. Astutely written as well as performed, Harriet’s Return traces Harriet Tubman’s life from willful slave girl to Civil War spy and women’s rights activist. It covers her early marriage, her escape from slavery in Maryland, her many rescue missions via the Underground Railroad, her meeting with abolitionist John Brown, and even the retirement home she founded later in life. But this is much more than just a history lesson. With each episode, Meadows’ Harriet emerges more clearly as a deeply human hero. She loves others to her own detriment. She tries to ignore, then understand, and finally follow the voices in her head. She aches to be a wife …Read more