Karen Jones Meadows is an exciting performer. She speaks in full voice infused with passion, grabbing your attention and pulling you into her world.
Her one-woman show, Harriet’s Return, had just three performances at Luna Stage in West Orange this weekend, in conjunction with Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorated the two-year delayed emancipation of people in Texas. June 19th is the acutal holiday. Although Luna Stage presents it, the show is from On Purpose Productions. It’s an inspiring piece on any day, but particularly appropriate to tell the story of a bold, brave woman who dedicated her life to bringing slaves to freedom. Meadows is a marvel, wonderful to look at and riveting to hear. The house was full and appreciative the night I went, but more people should have a chance to see it.
She’s supported throughout by strong, imaginitive direction from Jake Walker. The set, designed by David Ode and Stefani Willis, uses the three-quarter space perfectly, with stations of furniture mixed in with hanging branches and dry leaves. One of the strongest elements of design is the sound — drum beats when Harriet’s inspired or fleeing (recordings from Eugene A. Armstrong and Imbili Tissot); river water when she stops to bathe. They add a magical, dreamlike touch to Harriet’s narrative.
Meadows begins in the present, as a woman in a red dashiki-like outfit on a date, appalled by the trashtalking of black people by black people that she can’t help overhearing at a restaurant. Though her outburst lecture to a man is in her own head, she soon finds she’s being called by ancestors into the past. She takes off the red dress to reveal a simple cotton shift/slave outfit beneath (costume design by Jessica Nikithser), and turns into a young Harriet Tubman. Meadows’ bio says that she is a healing artist and intuitive medium, and there is mysticism here and throughout the play, too. Harriet finds her way through life by listening to her “voices,” which sound much like spirit guides.
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.
When she sees a boy running away, her instinct is to run with him, seemingly as a distraction. This ends badly though, when she gets an iron anvil thrown at her and becomes an invalid for eight months. Her family supports her — she’s all the more precious because her mother has had several children sold away.
Meadows’ script delivers plenty of funny asides that pull us up from the misery of the unfair world. “Can’t muster affection for someone who owns you,” she observes when the new slaveowner is a slight improvement on the last. At 14, she realizes the power of her thoughts — a new age idea that isn’t distracting, because it’s mixed into a world whose outer reality makes little sense. Meadows the actress uses those thoughts to transform herself; it’s remarkable how she can visually go from funny-looking to delicately beautiful on a word. She catches her handsome husband using a Hoo-Doo trick of sewing his shirt into a quilt, and, says Harriet, who is strong as an ox but no seamstress, “can’t nobody help me with the sewing else I got to share my husband with him.”
Returning from a first date, looking over her shoulder again and again, is as clear a picture of falling in love as you’ll ever see on stage.
But John doesn’t share her beliefs about the injustice of slavery, though he’s a freed man. Mama and Papa Drake, a local religious couple (I think– one of the play’s few weaknesses is a failure to provide supporting materials and names, so that at times it isn’t clear what year we are in or how much time has gone by) advise her to tie a green string around her toe to remind her of her purpose. A Quaker woman first tells her how to get to a safehouse, and she escapes crossing the ice. It’s exciting and frightening to go with her on her escape.
It’s in Act Two that she begins to resemble the Harriet Tubman you may have met in fourth grade American History. She loves Philadelphia, but is lonely working at a hotel, lthough “working is just like slavery, ceptin’ you get paid.” Before long, encouraged by members of a black abolitionist church, she goes down south to get her husband and family. The husband disappoints and does not join her, but she’s found her purpose. And she realizes “love ain’t no sentiment, it’s an action.”
Act Two also stumbles into some of the pitfalls of biography plays, namely, lurching from action to action to get it all in. Individual scenes are always riveting, but they have less clear an arc than that of watching a slave girl we know will escape. Her interlude with an abandoned child, who would become a daughter to her if her mother hadn’t claimed her, is lovely, but out of context. What year is it? She’s proud of the $40,000 price on her head. As she goes on journey after journey, it isn’t clear why the rescues seem so much easier, except that she’s become expert at them. At one point, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet has to bring escaped slaves all the way to Canada for security. And, as the narrator did at the top of the play, she encounters black on black prejudice and discrimination too. Harriet herself isn’t above name-dropping — later in life, she will meet Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, even Queen Victoria. And Mrs. Lincoln — by the time she dies, she has become a true American heroine.
At the end of her life, using the chair as a walker, she calls out the audience (asking their names and interacting with them; Meadows’ use of eye contact without breaking character is one of the joys of her performance) to remember their purpose. “You the ones,” she says, as the drums build.
It’s a call to everyone. And the response is well-deserved.
Harriet’s Return is an official member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
Luna Stage is located in The Valley Arts District, at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ, and is wheelchair accessible. For information or to purchase tickets, call 973-395-5551 or visit the Luna Stage website.