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Beate Hein Bennett

Stranger in a Strange Land:
"Harriet's Return"

February 8 – March 4, 2018
Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd Street
Presented by New Federal Theatre in association with Castillo Theatre
Thur, Fri, Sat @ 7:30 PM, Sat and Sun @ 2PM
$40 general admission, $30 students and seniors, groups (10 or more) $25
Box office: www.castillo.org, 212-941-1234

Karen Jones Meadows as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), one of the legendary figures in American history, is the subject of the one-woman performance by Karen Jones Meadows who also scripted her exploration into the life of this remarkable woman. Harriet Tubman has been recently in the news as the planned image on the twenty dollar bill to replace President Andrew Jackson, slave owner and notorious for his murderous campaigns against the Cree and Seminole tribes. However, last August Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin axed the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Dr. Lenora Fulani writes in her program note for this production: "Putting Tubman on the $20 bill doesn’t put a $20 bill in the pocket of a poor mother who is struggling to feed her kids. And given how much value our society has placed in celebrating the Almighty Dollar, I'm not at all sure that the best way to honor Tubman is by putting her face on money."

Karen Jones Meadows has created a much fuller and more fitting portrait of Harriet Tubman than a $20 bill could ever present. In the course of two hours, she takes us through her entire life growing up as the child of field slaves to being a field slave herself on a plantation in Maryland. A smart(alecky) child, she is much loved by her poor parents and the community of field slaves but getting into regular trouble with the cruel overseer who nearly kills her at one point. As she heals from her physical and emotional trauma, she grows into a self-confident young woman with a fierce desire for freedom fueled by the hatred of the slave condition. Even so, she loves and marries another slave, John Tubman, but when he would not follow her path towards freedom, she leaves to take up the dangerous journey northward by herself. The inspiration and strategy was given to her one day by a white Quaker woman who had come south to spread the news among slaves about the clandestine "underground railroad," a roadmap of safe houses out of the region below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Karen Jones Meadows as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

And it is here that Harriet Tubman's truly heroic story begins, and which Ms. Meadows performs with untiring energy. She shows the Harriet that goes back South to lead slaves to freedom--Tubman went thirteen times which earned her the moniker "Moses;" subsequently, she achieves a respected position as an active Abolitionist, a friend of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Fredrick Douglass; she leads a Black unit of the Union Army during the Civil War; she is a pioneer in the women’s rights movement ; and she becomes a business woman and property owner (23 acres and a house near Auburn, NY) after having worked as a menial laborer and nurse. While she accomplished all this without any schooling, she supported the establishment The New Federal Theatre Tuskegee Institute. Like many indigent women throughout human history, Harriet Tubman lived by her innate intelligence, wit, and courage. The performance brings to life the way stations of this tiny (4'10") woman with insight into the many painful conundrums that come with the decision to venture into the unknown, to be "a stranger in a strange land", as Tubman is reputed to have said upon reaching freedom.

Ms. Meadows presents a brief prologue scene that skewers class prejudice, as it can play out among contemporary blacks. Dressed in a red outfit, turban, robe, and clutching an African cloth bag, she plays the educated well-spoken middle class black who proudly espouses her African heritage in confrontation with the poor "street" black—and takes on both voices. From this red-robed haughty woman, she transforms herself into Minty, the "miracle child" of field slaves, who will grow up to become Harriet. The relationship between child and parent is a recurring theme throughout her drama. (Harriet never bore children herself.) One of the most powerful scenes is the confrontation between Harriet as a pistol wielding soldier during the Civil War and a black man whom she tries to persuade to kill his master and join her troop but who fights her and under threat of her pistol, cries out: "How can I kill my Daddy!" That one sentence contains the entire American tragedy of black slave/white master heritage.

Karen Jones Meadows as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Woodie King, Jr., Producer of The New Federal Theatre is presenting the expanded version of the play by Karen Jones Meadows with the direction of Clinton Turner Davis. An elaborate set by Chris Cumberbatch and lighting by Antoinette Tynes create the murky atmosphere of fields by the edge of swampy woods so typical to the South— a place probably imprinted in Harriet’s mind. The costume design by Ali Turns serves the various transformations of Harriet as she takes on her different roles in the course of her long life. Ms. Meadows performs an actor's tour de force as she brings to life the complex history of a remarkable person, always down-to-earth but with a soaring spirit.


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