In "Harriet's Return," at the Geffen Playhouse, Debbie Allen the actress -- as opposed to Debbie Allen the movie producer, TV director or Oscar choreographer -- steps into the stage spotlight after a long absence. Playing legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, as well as a dozen or so of the people she encountered in her long, extraordinary life, Allen gives an earthy, varied and richly felt performance that's never less than captivating, even when Karen Jones Meadows' play runs into trouble.
In “Harriet’s Return,” at the Geffen Playhouse, Debbie Allen the actress — as opposed to Debbie Allen the movie producer, TV director or Oscar choreographer — steps into the stage spotlight after a long absence. Playing legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, as well as a dozen or so of the people she encountered in her long, extraordinary life, Allen gives an earthy, varied and richly felt performance that’s never less than captivating, even when Karen Jones Meadows’ play runs into trouble.
After an uneasy opening — Allen waves a stick about and chants with her onstage chorus “My voices keep lifting me up, why do people keep bringing me down…” — the play begins with Allen as the young Harriet, then called Minty, relating in a voice plaintive with confusion the grim realities of a childhood spent in slavery. At age 6, she’s repeatedly beaten by the white woman whose baby she’s absent-mindedly tending (she’d been loaned out for profit by her family’s owner).
In her teens she’s inspired by a fellow plantation worker to attempt an unplanned escape and is brutally stopped by a blow to the head from an iron anvil. She suffers seizures for the rest of her life, though she returns to backbreaking work after a few months in bed. Meanwhile, a mysterious local couple sees something growing inside Harriet that she can’t yet put a name to or a harness on — “a fluttering in her heart,” she calls it — and eventually Harriet begins to hear voices that train her restless spirit on a single goal: freedom.
Meadows’ play is at its best in these vividly drawn scenes from Tubman’s youth: She creates a character full of sharp angles and inconsistencies, truculent and spirited at times, naive and frightened at others. Allen, a petite actress with an outsized presence, brings an impish, aggressive spirit to her portrayal that makes us see how an extraordinary woman was forged from peculiarities of character coming in conflict with injustices of history.
Although a quartet of performers share the stage with her, donning masks to represent various figures in her life, Allen voices all the key roles, deftly giving distinction to even the smaller ones, such as a supercilious free black woman that Harriet tangles with over the woman’s economic exploitation of the slaves. Director Kent Gash gracefully choreographs the participation of the supporting performers, and their mimed interaction with Allen never seems stagy or pretentious; they’re the physical embodiment of the voices that guide Harriet on her unlikely journey.
Unfortunately that journey becomes theatrically clumsy as it grows larger in scope in the play’s second act. The first half of the play ends with Harriet’s flight to freedom as a young woman in 1849, and the second act has to cover the rest of her life, all the way through to 1913, when she died in Auburn, N.Y., after founding a home for elderly blacks. The scale of Tubman’s achievement is so large that it’s not surprising it eludes the comfortable grasp of the playwright, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
One minute, a chance encounter with a group of abolitionists leads to Tubman’s first return journey to the South to help guide slaves to freedom. Fifteen minutes later we learn that she’s brought more than 300 up north, including, as she mentions in a casual aside, her own parents. The perils of such journeys are illustrated in just a single vignette or two, as is Tubman’s remarkable involvement in the Civil War.
The scattered second act lacks the emotional depth of the first, which is given shape by Tubman’s growth to maturity and drive toward freedom. While we’re busy learning the spectacular outlines of her later career, the character of the woman loses the sharp focus it had in act one. By the play’s end she’s become the familiar, admirable and indistinct figure she so interestingly wasn’t at the outset.
Allen works valiantly to offset the problem, but she isn’t helped by the crowd-pleasing but misguided finale, which has Harriet chatting with the audience, and exhorting us all to act on the moral dictates of our hearts and minds. Instead of sermonizing, the playwright should trust the life of the woman — and the talents of the actress playing her — to arouse such feelings.