March 18, 2014

‘Harriet’ and its author return to Charlotte

Karen Jones Meadows brings one-woman show about activist Tubman to the city that gave her an early boost.

Ask Karen Jones Meadows how old she is, and she cheerfully admits to being somewhere between 6 and 93. (You know how actresses are.) She plays activist-suffragette Harriet Tubman across that span in “Harriet’s Return,” a drama that marks Jones Meadows’ own return to Mecklenburg County after almost 20 years.

If you believe in destiny, the full-length play has been brewing since she did vignettes of famous characters – Tubman included – at the old Afro-American Cultural Center on Myers Street in the 1980s.

“I thought I was done with Harriet when I left Charlotte and moved back north,” she says. “Then I got a job writing music CDs for children, and I was asked to condense Harriet’s life to a 7-minute opera. Another day, I was standing on the East Side, waiting for a light to change, and a white businessman with a briefcase asked, ‘What do you know about Harriet Tubman?’ Then playwright Ron Milner called, said he was starting a theater and wanted a script for children.” About Harriet Tubman, in fact.

Jones Meadows has always been sensitive to omens. She thought, “If I’m going to write a play about Harriet Tubman and do research and more research, I’m going to write an adult version.” And, with guidance from director Jake Walker, play all 30 roles.

Her Tubman is “a reluctant warrior. She didn’t plan to go back to the South 19 times and bring 300 slaves out (on the Underground Railroad). She didn’t plan to be a soldier and spy during the Civil War. She wanted to have a happy life and wear nice dresses, but she had the potential and guts and intuition to do more.”

Her website places Jones Meadows’ talents under the umbrella phrase “healing artist.” That encompasses actress, playwright, teacher – she was Davidson College’s McGee Professor of Writing in 1995 – arts in education specialist, workshop facilitator and intuitive medium.

“The workshops are now the focus of what I do,” she says, referring to sessions with titles such as “Drama as a Healing Art” and “Towers of Power for Youth.” “Part of it was that I didn’t like the meanness of working in traditional theater, people belittling each other. There’s a play called ‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy,’ and that’s what theater began to feel like.

“I’ve always been spiritually oriented. I’ve learned a lot about the metaphysical world and the benefits of including intuition in our lives. And I have become very good at giving intuitive readings.”

People who knew “this former city girl” in her native New York or Charlotte might be surprised to hear that she has relocated to a New Mexico village north of Albuquerque. She’s at home now in a land where wild horses amble nearby, little lizards invade her home and September brings “giant tarantulas that look like fuzzy hands walking across the street.”

Through all her physical and spiritual moves, Tubman has remained with her.

“I love that this play changes lives, that a Holocaust survivor told me she was touched. Though it’s not the exact same story as hers, it IS the same story (at bottom). And there’s a distinct difference when I perform for a racially mixed audience and a predominantly black audience; it hits black people in a whole different way.”

Did Tubman’s story change her personally?

“She taught me more bravery, decisiveness and perseverance. (I have) a firmer grip on the pleasures and opportunities of living. I trust self-directed power (and have) a deeper understanding that life energy does not die: She is everywhere still.”

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