Legendary Lives: Playwright Karen Jones Meadows shares inspiration behind ‘Harriet’s Return’

In a delicious twist of irony, the U.S. Treasury earlier this spring announced it would replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait with that of famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Jackson, a president who supported slavery and other practices generally looked upon unfavorably a century and a half later, will be bumped to the back of the bill.

For Karen Jones Meadows, this announcement is poetic justice. In her one-woman play, “Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman,” Jones Meadows plays Tubman and 30 other characters to paint a multi-dimensional picture of Tubman and the time during which she lived.

In the play, Jackson’s appearance isn’t met with much ardor.

“I call him ‘the most hateful, treacherous, scoundrel of a man who ever took a hold of breath,’” Jones Meadows said.

Harsh words perhaps, but whether or not they’re warranted isn’t the point. What matters is that people feel such an affinity with Tubman that they not only called to evict Jackson from his perch on the 20 note, but they voted for Tubman over such popular figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks. Clearly, there’s something about Tubman’s story that resonates with modern audiences, and in her play Jones Meadows seeks to examine how qualities such as resilience, creativity and intuition helped Tubman achieve the things she did — and to reveal how others can identify those same qualities within themselves.

To know Harriet

Tubman has been with Jones Meadows since the 1980s, when the executive director of Charlotte, N.C.’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, then called the Afro-American Cultural Center, asked Jones Meadows to create a portrayal of high points in black history.

Jones Meadows researched four women — Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to see her poetry published; Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun”; Nzinga, the warrior queen of the Ndongo and Matamba people in Angola; and Tubman — and performed their biographies extemporaneously depending on audience age and composition.

“For all of these characters, I learned their lives, the period of their lives, what was going on in their lives,” Jones Meadows said.

To be sure, each woman has a vibrant, compelling story, but Jones Meadows said it was Tubman who most captivated her audiences.

“She has a persuasive, uplifting, enlightening energy,” Jones Meadows said.

After the project ended, Jones Meadows moved on to other projects.

“I thought I was done, but no matter what I did, Harriet would come back,” Jones Meadows said.

It was almost as if Tubman were following Jones Meadows, tapping her on the shoulder to remind her of her presence.

While working for a company specializing in music CDs for children, Jones Meadows was asked to condense an opera based on Tubman’s life into a 7-minute segment.

And one day in New York City while waiting for a streetlight to change, a man in a business suit — a total stranger to Jones Meadows — turned to her and asked if she happened to know anything about Tubman.

Then Detroit playwright Ron Milner invited her to write a children’s play about Tubman. She was happy to do it, but she saw the potential for more.

Becoming Harriet

To accurately portray Tubman and 30 other characters in the play, Jones Meadows had to immerse herself in historical research.

She spent countless hours in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y., and the Louis Round Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she read books and examined historic and personal documents.

Not surprisingly, she’s amassed a considerable collection of Tubman tomes.

“I’ve got stacks and stacks. My favorite is Earl Conrad’s ‘General Tubman,’” Jones Meadows said.

The depth of this research has allowed her to create a nuanced portrait of Tubman. It’s not just about the chronology — forget the chronology, in fact, as the play involves a bit of travel through time and space. This, Jones Meadows said, is the Harriet you don’t know.

And yet, in a way, there’s something about this story that feels familiar on an intimate level.

“Everybody somewhere has been enslaved,” Jones Meadows said, listing constructs such as family, education, money and beliefs as examples of things that can shackle us.

And so on its face, “Harriet’s Return” is a play about a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life, but it also is a call to action.

“As with all of us who evolve, she had cathartic moments that led her to the next thing, and to the next thing. So she’s like us. She takes the action and most people don’t. The play is about how if you take the action, revolution and evolution happen personally and collectively,” Jones Meadows said.

Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27

Missouri Theatre

$30 – $35

concertseries.org

573-882-3781

A school show will be staged 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26 at Missouri Theatre. Admission to school shows is free for students and two chaperones per group of 30. Additional chaperone or adult tickets can be purchased for $5.

Karen Jones Meadows also will lead two free workshops for members of the community. Culture in the Quarter, to be held Wednesday, 3 – 5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Missouri Theatre, explores African American resilience and creativity through arts, relationships, ingenuity, cuisine and rebellion. Towers of Power, which examines conscious fulfillment, wellbeing and service to others, will held 1 – 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 in Room CLC 103 at the Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. 9th Street. 

Story by Caroline Dohack