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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

‘Harriet Returns’: One-woman show comes to Charlotte
The famed Underground Railroad conductor portrayed in new light
Published Wednesday, March 19, 2014
by Michaela L. Duckett

Tomorrow’s R.O.A.D. presents “Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman” March 21 at Central Piedmont Community College’s Pease Auditorium.

The production is a one-woman show with 31 characters starring and written by Karen Jones Meadows. Over the last decade, Meadows, a former Charlotte resident, has reprised the role of Harriet for audiences around the world, taking them on a journey through nine decades of Tubman’s private and public life. In the following Q&A Meadows shares how she developed the concept and how the play portrays the famed Underground Railroad conductor in a way she has not been seen before. Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: How did you come up with the concept for the play?

Answer: I was living in Charlotte and was hired by the then-Afro-American Cultural Center to create a living portrait of black history. I chose Harriet Tubman, Phyllis Wheatley, Loraine Hansberry and Queen Nzinga. I learned their life stories and did performances in costumes extemporaneously… I thought Queen Nzinga would be the most popular because that’s the one that fascinated me the most, but Harriet became the most popular.

After I left Charlotte, I didn’t plan on doing anything else with these characters, but no matter what I did, Harriet always seemed to come up. At my job I ended up doing a project on Harriet Tubman. On the street, she would come up in conversation… Then Ron Milner, who is a playwright with a theater I Detroit, contacted me about writing a children’s version. I did a lot of research and figured that if I was going to work that hard I should do one for a general audience as well, and that’s Harriet came to what she is now.

Q: What do you hope the audience will take away after seeing the play?

A: It’s a play about freedom, not slavery. It’s about the power of the spirit to soar and be free no matter the circumstances… There’s a call to action as well that each of us has the power to fulfill our own lives. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and save the universe. It means that whatever is in you to create and be as whole as you can, when you follow that it gives you a full life.

Q: How does this play portray Harriet Tubman in a way that we have not seen her portrayed before?

A: We go through her life in the contemporary to her afterlife. So we see her whole span from 6 to 93… People often think of her as stoic and hard and even kind of manly. The play shows her evolution from a little girl with a very strong will. It shows what happened to her personally. Most people don’t know her whole story. It shows her with her family. It shows her falling in love, which is one of my favorite parts. It makes her accessible and it brings her basic humanity in to light without diminishing anything she accomplished. And I think that’s why people get inspired because they see themselves…

We see her learn lessons like we all do. We see her be selfish. We see her not listen to her intuition, the way we sometimes do… She was an entrepreneur, and people learn that part of her. She met and was with a lot of [famous people]. It brings her life full circle and shows her in all aspects, and I hadn’t seen that before. Usually the focus is just on the Underground Railroad, which is the least interesting part for me.

Q: Is the play historically accurate?

A: Yes. I say it’s 80 percent actually Harriet, and 20 percent yes it happened, but not necessarily in that way. Like her falling in love, those relationships are absolutely Harriet. The way I deal with her wanting to have children and not doing so is that she finds a little girl out in the road while she’s on a journey and they form a relationship. That gives us a chance to see her in a maternal role. I don’t want to give away the entire story, but her higher calling makes her have to out and leave that relationship to a degree.

Q: You’ve performed this play internationally. What surprised you most about the responses you’ve received in other countries?

A: What’s amazing is that people know who Harriet Tubman is, and they come out… Whether it’s family or a job that’s holding them back, it’s universal in that it helps them to free themselves. I have a letter from somebody who was a holocaust survivor who said that even though it was not the quite the same story, it was the same story… The audience is so mixed. Observing, based on my own prejudices, people I never thought would be in the audience have come.


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