Twenty years ago my husband Ralph and I wrote a musical about the early Women’s Rights movement in the 1850’s. Because the issue of slavery was an important feature in the story, in one rewrite I added the character of Harriet Tubman. About ten years ago, when we were living in Staten Island, I read an amazing book by a woman who had actually interviewed Harriet when she was living in Auburn, New York after the Civil War. Ralph and I had received a number of grants from the Staten Island Arts Council to write and produce musicals and I now felt inspired to write a new work based on Harriet’s actual words. However, in a meeting with the African American Grants Director, Ben Jacobs, I expressed my hesitation over tackling this Harriet Tubman project. I said, “As a white woman, I don’t feel I have the right to be writing about the greatest African American woman in history.” Ben looked at me with eyebrows raised and said bluntly: “Get over it!” So I went home and started the play that very day, handed it in at the last minute, and two months later was awarded a $2,000 grant to write and direct “Harriet Tubman Herself.”
It started as a two-person play with myself, as Sarah Bradford, interviewing Harriet with questions taken directly from the book. My choice of an actress for Harriet was Christine Dixon, whose work I knew. When Christine performed in our interactive Christmas musical, “Santa Claus is Missing” she portrayed Dasher, the lead reindeer, who gathered children from the audience to come up as reindeer and help her draw Santa’s sleigh. I had observed how she dealt with shy or belligerent or confused little ones She always calmed them by her uncanny ability to be natural and persuasive so they trusted her and believed in her. I wanted my Harriet to be a real human being, not a waxworks impersonation of someone we never really met. I knew Christine had that special ability, she was not only a brilliant actress and singer, but she was there, totally there, in every sense of the word.
Having been a Broadway critic and seen a number of The Greats in performance I have always observed that acting is not ‘acting’ but ‘being’ so when you are watching a great performer you don’t think ‘Wow, he or she is really good!’ In fact you don’t think at all. You know this is the real thing with no affectation or falsity. You forget you are watching an actor because you are seeing a real person. My knowledge and instincts told me this was Christine’s special ability so I wrote the play, with gospel songs and spirituals, specifically for her.
Ralph wrote a number of songs to add to the more famous spirituals and we started performing at the local libraries. After a few months of embracing the material, and observing how well it worked, the artistic director of Staten Island’s Sundog Theatre, Susan Fenley, saw it as perfect for their School performance series. With my agreement, Susan worked with Christine to make it into a totally one-woman show and the race was on. Schools, Community Centers and Senior centers throughout the New York area welcomed Christine to come there as Harriet all year long. This grew into an annual tour along the East Coast and, for the past 8 years, Christine, as Harriet Tubman herself, has been engaging audiences from Harriet’s home in upstate New York, down through New York, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina even into the Caribbean. As of today, with over 326 actual performances we can now count the 310 standing ovations she has received at every show.
Years from now people will be saying, “Did you ever see Christine Dixon as Harriet Tubman?” And thousands of people, not only African Americans, will remember it well because when they were a child the real Harriet Tubman came to their church or school and made them realize what a great person is really like. With Christine they met a living, breathing woman who maybe shook their hand or bump-fisted them, and even drew them up to the stage where she led them to freedom. Whether Harriet Tubman’s picture appears on a stamp, a twenty-dollar bill, or as a distant moving image on a movie screen, they know they had the greatest privilege. Because they met Harriet, touched her, saw her tears and her laughter, her courage and her determination, and saw how much she loved her people, her family, and best of all, how she loved them too.
Christine takes her performance right into the audience so she is present at that moment with them and it has to be experienced to truly appreciate. Christine Dixon is a great actress but, as Harriet Tubman, she transcends the technique of acting when she channels Harriet Tubman at the exact moment in time as her performing. With rowdy teens she is a scolding momma, with little ones she is the cuddling adult that loves them unreservedly, with adults she is the challenging force that awakens their instinct for play while strengthening their awe and admiration for this acknowledged icon. Yes, it’s Harriet Tubman in person and everyone who cares for humanity needs to be encouraged by this informal but informative hour with Harriet Tubman Herself!
Morna Murphy Martell