Seven days into Black History Month, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is presenting "Harriet's Return", author and actress Karen Jones Meadows' stirring tribute to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who went on to become a noted "conductor" for the Underground Railroad, a "General" under John Brown, another "Moses" and "Mother Harriet" to countless abused victims of slavery.
A tour-de-force two-and-a-half-hour performance by Ms. Jones Meadows tracks Tubman's life from childhood to old age, wherein she portrays some 30+ characters who intersect and often re-appear in Harriet's eventful life.
The play sets the themes of Tubman's life with her modern-day counterpart defiantly and aggressively indulging in a diatribe against stereotypes of African Americans' and their self-loathing for succumbing to white society's judgements. None too soon, she transforms into the young Araminta ["Minty" as she is known], her vivid red evening dress changed into a shapeless brown sack.
From then on to the end of Act I, we follow her treatment and shame at the hands of "masters" and other slaves, her connection to family, the injury that makes her "stupid" and creates the voices she hears for the rest of her life, her realization at age 14 that "I'm growed" and insists on calling herself Harriet, her marriage to the unfaithful love of her life John Tubman, the advice she receives from Mama and Papa Drake, and her eventual escape to freedom in Philadelphia.
Act II picks up the action as she helps free her family from slave conditions in the South. "God came through for me," she says, "and I'll come through for him." Scene after scene recounts the now familiar history of her exploits with abolitionists and the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, her work with Frederick Douglass and John Brown, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Emancipation Proclamation, her move to Auburn, NY where she faced the snobbery of former slaves now living a better life, and founding a home for old and indigent former slaves before going on a successful lecture circuit to educate anyone who would listen.
Quite a lot to fit into an evening; and though some scenes are drawn out beyond their dramatic interest, there is no doubt about Ms. Jones Meadows abilities as a performer and a writer. She has an ability to switch characters -- sometimes with a mere shift of posture -- and a vast arsenal of voices that distinguish each role with conviction.
But the play is more than this. The earnestness with which she admires her subject gives the story a vivid life of its own. And the longer we stay in her passionate presence, we can not help but be influenced by the messages she provides: problems are fixed from within, each life should have a purpose, every individual can make a difference, even bad experiences make us stronger, it is all people's responsibility to pass on their knowledge and wisdom.