Karen Jones Meadows is the woman behind the play Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman, a show that spans the life — and afterlife — of one of the Underground Railroad’s most famous “conductors.”
“She was enslaved and she knew in her soul that she wasn’t,” says Meadows of Tubman. Calling herself a research-aholic, Meadows dedicates a lot of her time to learning about all aspects of Tubman’s life, making sure she’s true to her legacy. “I’m looking at her as a whole being,” says Meadows. “There’s nothing she couldn’t do.”
Meadows may be right about that. In addition to the well-known story of her work on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was also a nurse and a spy for the Union during the Civil War. Yep, a spy. In 1863 she joined Colonel James Montgomery in an assault on plantations along the Combahee River (located just South of Edisto Island); there she helped rescue more than 700 slaves.
Meadows was originally asked by a playwright in New York to write a children’s version of Harriet Tubman’s story and she decided that if she was going to devote her time to the famous figure, she would write a story for adults, too. Harriet’s Return, in which Meadows performs the roles of 31 different characters, has toured throughout the United States as well as in Tortolla, and Meadows says that she gets positive reactions from audiences everywhere.
“People identify with her journey,” says Meadows. And her journey isn’t just one of a heroine — Tubman had her fair share of failings too. “We watch her fail. There are practical elements about her that we can all incorporate into our lives,” she says.
Meadows first visited Charleston last October, when Harriet’s Return was supposed to be performed as part of MOJA’s 2016 lineup (due to Hurricane Matthew several acts were rescheduled). While here, Meadows says that she experienced “a lot of energy and ancestral experience.” She thinks places like Charleston — really, anywhere in the world right now — can benefit from hearing Tubman’s story.
“It’s a time when we are in transition in a lot of ways, and people still want the answers,” says Meadows. “History matters to me. So much of history in American is buried.” So while Meadows admits that Tubman’s story is pretty well-known, she’s still actively telling her story, lest anyone dare to forget.
Meadows says that kids in particular enjoy her interpretation of Tubman’s life, especially African-American kids who are sick of hearing the same old story. “They leave with their chests puffed up like, ‘That’s right, this is who we are,’” she says. “It was a collective force that came together that made it possible to have the Underground Railroad.”
“It’s a big experience,” says Meadows of Harriet’s Return. “I get to go on the ride, too.”