A One Woman Show With a Vengeance
Debbie Allen and Stephen Smith in “Harriet’sReturn.”
Harriet Tubman, the fugitive-slave andabolitionist, was a kind of African-American Mata Hari. During theCivil War, she frequently conducted scouting parties and raids behindthe Confederate lines and was one of the North’s most effectivespies. Before that, she had become the chief flagman of theUnderground Railroad, personally responsible for freeing over 300slaves and spiriting them into either the North or Canada. When shewas 23, her white master forced her to marry a fellow slave namedJohn Tubman. He was unfaithful to her; his only real claim to famebeing that his name attached itself to his exceptional wife for alltime. A visionary in the literal sense of the word, much of Tubman’slife was dictated by visions she claimed to receive from God. Shecould neither read nor write but her street smarts were prodigiousand her skill in avoiding arrest, astounding. Guided only by theNorth Star, she made her escape from slavery in 1849 and, throughinnumerable exploits which would be high melodrama were they nothistorical facts, became one of the more enduring legends in blackhistory.
Debbie Allen, the endless hyphenate(producer-director-choreographer-dancer- actress-singer) whoincarnates Tubman in “Harriet’s Return” now at The Geffen Playhouse,is something of an icon in her own right. A tough, sassy, fearlessand ambitious Texan, one can easily see her upholding the rule Tubmanimposed on slaves being ferried from the south to the north; namely,that anyone contemplating surrender would be summarily shot. Amongher other accomplishments, Allen, after a gestation period of 19years, produced the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad.”Allen’s grit andstick-to-it-iveness is almost a mirror image of Tubman’s and,according to gossip, she’s just as ornery.
Using a quartet of dancer-actors to illustrate herstory, Allen has created a kind of new theatrical form: a one womanshow with appendages. Virtually all the dialogue of the charactersinteracting with Tubman are played out by Harrriet, her “chorus”providing masks, mime and kinetic illustrations as required. This is,you might say, a one woman show with a vengeance, the vengeance beingthat the other performers, visibly talented and obviously capable,are reduced to being merely the chain on Allen’s shackle. Allenherself plays the roles of husband, parents, politicians,slave-drivers and fellow abolitionists — all dramatis personae inHarriet Tubman’s precarious and colorful life.
It may well be the most chameleon performance everseen in Los Angeles, couched in the drawling argot of the Southernblack and shuttling between modesty, mysticism, defiance and guile.Karen Jones Meadow’s free-wheeling script leaps across the mainevents of Tubman’s life as if they were stones gushing between a wildriver stream. We get flashes from Tubman’s life but being a solitarycharacter flanked by performers who are merely repercussions of thoseevents, we tend to lose both context and historicalperspective.
The greatest conflict in Tubman’s life appears tobe the demons which both taunt her and goad her on to ever moredaring acts. But the lack of opposition — the developing emnity ofboth southern whites and blacks and the vast American majority whocould never countenance the independence of what they took to be anignorant, fugitive-slave — makes the character seem to be operatingin a vacuum. If you are familiar with the details of The UndergroundRailway, the history of John Brown’s rebellion and the assistanceprovided by Quakers such as Thomas Garrett and friends like SarahHopkins Bradford (who helped Tubman write her memoir “Scenes from theLife of Harriet Tubman”), the play’s shorthand may be enough for you.But if you’re out of that loop, Meadows’ play does little to etch inthe social and political context in which Tubman stood out sodramatically.
After the first half of the show, one has got theflavor of Allen’s peripatetic take on Tubman’s interior life. By thetime the second half rolls around, it is no longer enough for thejumping-jack style to sustain our interest. One longs to experiencethe antagonism of the outside world which both defines Tubman andinspired her most courageous feats. One longs, in fact, for dramaticdevelopment rather than biographical tidbits and, being denied that,the more sympathetic part of the audience takes refuge in admirationfor the eponymous heroine while the others begin to deplore both thelack of tension and the absence of a corroborating socialmilieu.
At the end of the evening, Allen, ostensiblyaddressing a national association of “colored women” breaks theillusion she has carefully built up around her character and dealsimprovisationally with the Geffen audience made up, incongruously, ofmiddle-aged, affluent Jewish subscribers. This, like so much of theevening, amusingly puts dents into the imaginary fourth wall, butalso seems to acknowledge the fact that the privacy of thecharacterization has been too remorseless and something overtlytheatrical is required. The instinct is sound although the choice,rather gauche. What was really needed — a thrust of counteractivefigures from Tubman’s world — was impossible to have, given the soloform of the play. In a story that seems to cry out for clear-cutantagonists and human interplay, one is given only a subjectiveanalysis of one character’s journey from slavery to freedom.
Debbie Allen has a real knack for sniffing outdramatic episodes from black history and turning them into toughdramas. Tubman’s story, like the incidents in “Amistad,” is brimmingwith cinematic potential. But it’s the kind of story that seems todemand a socially-detailed, even panoramic canvas rather than theextended soliloquy offered in “Harriet’s Return.”
Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In
Theater magazine, writes fromMalibu.
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Questioning Judaism, FindingOneself
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Actress Hildy Brooks
In her one-woman show, “When the RabbiLied,” Hildy Brooks starts out as a wisecracking substitute teacher,drafted at the last second to teach a class on “SpiritualJudaism.”
It is an unpromising beginning, but when Brooksturns serious, the play takes on a deeper hue as she probes for herJewish roots and spiritual identity.
Her transforma-tion is both internal and external,with Brooks’ dress code changing from short skirt and fashionablecoiffure to modest long skirt and head scarf.
In her new persona, Brooks, or Sippy in the play,retains some of her earlier sassiness, but it is now directed toquestioning the received wisdom in a Torah class, much to theannoyance of her fellow students and the rabbi.
In Sippy’s view, Judaism has evolved through aconstant confrontation between traditionalists and such innovators asHillel, Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov.
Nothing too heretical about that, but when Sippytried to cast Jesus as a Jewish radical who might have contributed tothe faith of his birth had he not been rejected, she herself isexcommunicated from the class.
Her fellow students, who are more interested inknowing how long after eating a hamburger they have
to wait to enjoya milk shake (the answer is six hours), or how to avoid matzoconstipation during Passover, heave a sigh of relief.
Most moving is Sippy’s own reconciliation with herdead father, a Talmud scholar who never understood his rebelliousdaughter, and the contrasting warm, earthy relationship with hernon-Jewish husband.
Brooks is a fine actress, who appropriatelylearned the ritual and spirit of the frum lifestyle while researchingher role as the Chassidic rabbi’s wife in “The Chosen.”
“When the Rabbi Lied,” written by Brooks anddirected by Manu Tupou, runs Thursdays to Sundays, through March 15,at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in West Hollywood. Forinformation, call (213) 650-7777.