Writer and actress explore Tubman's relevance today

April 20, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Vivian Gist and Margaret Barton Driggs are discussing what Harriet Tubman -- the runaway slave who helped lead 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad -- can teach audiences today.

"I'm going to give you words, adjectives," says Gist, the actress who portrays Tubman in the one-woman show, "Sweet Chariot," which will be performed tomorrow and Friday at the Enoch Pratt Central Library. "Perseverance, strength, belief, justice, truth, determination."

"Empowerment is what I've heard," interjects Driggs, the play's author. "I've heard black women say it: 'This is empowering.' Who says I can't do something? Who can tell me what my limits are?"

In a sense, this script represents Driggs' refusal to be boundby limitations. Not only was she largely unfamiliar with Tubman when she began, but she had never written a play.

Driggs, who lives in Easton, had her curiosity aroused about Tubman in 1978 when she read that the woman, who was called "the Moses of her people," came from neighboring Dorchester County.

A former flight attendant who was working as a free-lance writer, Driggs wrote articles about Tubman for two Maryland magazines. Her research was drawn from published biographies, well as from walking the same Eastern Shore land Tubman walked and interviewing the people there. "I found people descended from people she knew," Driggs says.

She visited Bucktown, where Tubman was born and where memorial services are held for her each June. She learned that singing spirituals such as "Go Down Moses" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" -- the source of the play's title -- often alerted slaves that Tubman was heading South again.

One of Driggs' more enlightening discoveries came at the Dorchester County courthouse, where she found the will of Tubman's mother's former owner. A clause in the will left Tubman's mother to a woman named Mary Pattison and stated that the slave was to be freed at age 45. "That will was not honored," Driggs says.

Eventually, Driggs decided that Tubman's story belonged on stage. "There were so many layers to this woman. She was thoroughly human, but she did superhuman things. This is what made me want to write the play."

She decided to make it a one-woman show because Tubman was so formidable. "I thought, 'Who wants to put somebody up there with her?' "

After writing the first act, which takes Tubman from age 5 to her escape to freedom 24 years later, Driggs got discouraged. "I found the material that would be going into the second act daunting. There was so much. I put it away."

Almost a decade later, Driggs showed her one-act script to a local director. A production of that act was scheduled for the Oxford (Md.) Community Center in April 1992, and an audition notice went out.

'Sounds like you'

That's where Vivian Gist came in. An associate professor at Anne Arundel Community College, where she teaches English and acting, Gist was given the notice and a note from the head of the theater department saying, "Sounds like you."

"I knew about Harriet Tubman and that she led a lot of slaves to freedom, [but] it wasn't until this play that I knew Harriet Tubman -- and the Harriet Tubman I wanted people to know," says Gist.

Besides creating the role when the first act debuted, Gist performed it in Church Hill. She returned to the role when the two-act version -- which takes Tubman up to the year of her death at age 93 -- premiered in February in Annapolis. The Enoch Pratt performances will be the play's Baltimore debut.

Driggs admits that being white was another factor she had to overcome in completing the play. "Maybe that's one of the reasons I put it in adrawer for so long. I was afraid my being white might stand in my way somehow," she says.

The advice of another writer -- to write about her passions -- helped.

Why was she passionate about Tubman? "Maybe because I grew up Catholic in the South," says the Georgia native.

"Maybe because I came with no knowledge whatsoever and found a tremendous surprise. Maybe because some of my earliest memories are of a loving, kind black woman who took care of me. Maybe because, although I never participated in the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King was shot I felt terribly affected by it."

For her part, Gist was surprised to discover that the author of "Sweet Chariot" was white. "My teeth fell out of my head," she says with a laugh.

But, she continues, "The thing that Peggy [Driggs] has done is she has so wonderfully captured Harriet Tubman and the spirit of Harriet . . . It wasn't that I was reading a black playwright or a white playwright. I was reading Harriet Tubman."

To date, the script has generated grants from the Talbot County Art Council, the Maryland Humanities Council and the Pilgrim Project, a New York-based research and education institute.

In addition, Driggs and Gist have both won Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council based on their work on "Sweet Chariot."

In July, the play will be produced at the Festival of Southern Theatre in Oxford, Miss., where it won the 1994 playwriting competition.

SWEET CHARIOT'

Where: Wheeler Auditorium, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Friday. (Reception with playwright and director at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Reception with actress after Friday's performance.)

Tickets: $25 to benefit the Pratt's Margot and Diane Dippold Women's Collection, dedicated to books by, for and about women

Call: (410) 396-5283

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