Harriet Tubman's life vividly portrayed

February 25, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

Single-actor shows are extraordinarily difficult to bring off for obvious reasons. But "Sweet Chariot," the account of the life of Harriet Tubman, succeeds where many fail.

It does so for several reasons. First, there is the riveting subject matter; the story of the escaped slave from Maryland's Eastern Shore whose work as a "conductor" on the storied Underground Railroad became symbolic of America's war of conscience against the scourge of slavery is a pretty dramatic premise even before a single line is spoken.

Playwright Margaret Barton Driggs has constructed a narrative that, while set in a Delaware farm house in the 1850s, flashes back to many interludes in the life of the woman the slaves called Moses.

We see her as a 5-year-old, as a teen-age slave at the mercy of her master's lash, as a lovesick young woman and as the mature moral crusader.

These shifts of character and venue give the play dramatic impetus and lend coherence and variety to the narrative.

This is why the remarkable Vivian Gist proved such a felicitous choice to play the great heroine during performances last weekend at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Not only is Ms. Gist an energetic actress possessed of admirable stage presence, but she is a natural mimic who can portray Harriet the child, Harriet the indignant slave, Harriet the activist and Harriet the legend without ever letting the creative well run dry.

From start to finish, her performance is a study in focused characterization.

All aspects of the production are commendable, with but two suggestions for improvement. The first relates to the pacing at the very end of Act I. So much dramatic energy builds toward Harriet's escape that the climax seems to occur just as she makes her break, not at the very end of the act when she arrives north of the Mason-Dixon as a free woman. I wonder if the energy flow couldn't be manipulated a little bit.

It may have been my hearing or my failure to adjust to Harriet's thick dialect quickly enough, but I missed the opening reference to the spells Tubman had to endure throughout her adult life; seizures that were the result of a vicious beating she received at the hands of an irate owner. I wish I'd picked up the reference more quickly and clearly. After all, the cretinous cracker who slugged Harriet Tubman made a serious tactical error.

With that act of wanton brutality, he helped forge the iron in the woman who would hammer such decisive nails in the coffin of the Old South's "peculiar institution."

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