More than 30 characters populate “Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman.”
But only one performer will bring them all to life Friday morning at the West Las Vegas Library Theatre: Karen Jones Meadows, who not only plays the roles but wrote the play.
“When I wrote this, I wasn’t performing” as the legendary underground railroad conductor and anti-slavery activist, Meadows recalls in a telephone interview from her New Mexico home.
“It’s very high-energy,” she says of the play. “If I had known I was going to perform it, I might have been kinder to myself.” As it is, “I’m up and moving all the time,” acquainting audiences with Tubman’s life and impact.
Local audiences will see the youth version of Meadows’ award-winning play, which follows Tubman from the age of 6 until her death at 93, from her enslaved childhood to her escape from slavery and the subsequent trips she made to lead others to freedom before the Civil War.
Recommended for audiences 10 or older, the free production includes audience participation, particularly during an on-the-road scene in which Tubman leads escaping slaves to freedom on the underground railroad.
Some students pulled from the audience will portray the runaway slaves. Others will play slave catchers and their dogs.
Sometimes it’s tough to get the students offstage because “they’re hams,” Meadows says with a chuckle, recalling “the dog that wouldn’t die” at one performance when the student cast as a canine continued to whimper even after the scene’s conclusion.
Clearly, the potentially dramatic escape is “not a nightmare scene,” she notes. “We have enough nightmares.”
During the show, Meadows portrays everyone from Tubman’s parents to her slaveholder, along with fiery abolitionist John Brown, who conferred with “General Tubman” as he was planning his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. (After the failed raid, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged; Tubman later said “he done more in dying than 100 men would in living.”)
During the course of the play “I’m everybody,” Meadows says. “My body and my voice changes” as she changes characters — and costumes — to portray such characters as abolitionist and underground railroad conductor William Still.
Some of “Harriet’s Return” is drawn from history. Other scenes originated in Meadows’ imagination, as when she portrays a young underground railroad passenger who becomes separated from her fellow escapees and wanders for two years.
“Harriet very much wanted to have children and couldn’t,” Meadows explains, so the fictional scene “covers the isolation, the danger and the mother need.”
Meadows first played Tubman as one of the “living portraits” she created and performed extemporaneously at the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte, N.C. The others included 17th-century Angolan warrior Queen Nzinga, 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley and 20th-century “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Meadows said she identified most with Queen Nzinga, but “people loved Harriet” for “her savvy, her humor, her intelligence.”
After playing Tubman at schools, churches, theaters — “sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for an hour” — Meadows thought “that was that.”
But when “someone asked me to write a youth version,” Meadows “had to go back” and do additional research.
“I thought I knew her story,” she says.
Instead, Meadows discovered how much she had to learn about Tubman, doing “tons and tons of research” to trace her subject’s journey — from her little girl days to her future as “a warrior and a healer and an entrepreneur.”
Along the way, Meadows also learned about Tubman’s spiritual bent.
“She was hit in the head” as a girl — when she angered a white overseer by refusing to help him restrain an attempted escapee — and afterward she “heard voices and spirits,” Meadows notes.
Tubman, “a master of disguise,” also displayed great personal bravery during her underground railroad days.
Following her escape, she made 19 trips back into slave territory to lead 300 others (including family members) to freedom, traveling in winter and threatening to shoot any slaves who wanted to turn back. (“A live runaway could do great harm by going back, but … a dead man could tell no secrets,” a fellow underground railroad ally recalled.)
In her research, Meadows also learned about Tubman’s love life. Her first marriage (to John Tubman, a free African-American) ended when she discovered he had taken another wife after she fled north. Following the Civil War — during which she worked as a cook, nurse, scout and spy — Tubman married a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davies.
“I love the romance,” Meadows says, noting Tubman “had a full-spectrum life going.” (Meadows even learned why Tubman rarely smiled in photographs: “because she wasn’t pleased with her teeth.”)
And though Tubman was born a slave and battled it during her lifetime (from about 1820 to 1913), “this is a play about freedom, not slavery,” Meadows says. “It’s about the power of the human spirit. It’s about spirit to the hundredth power.”
As one audience member, a Holocaust survivor, wrote to Meadows, “It’s still my story. It’s got a universal appeal.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.