Leslie McCurdy as Harriet Tubman-Davis is a match made in heaven. From her opening shaky-hand entrance declaiming “Help is still needed – that’s why I came back,” to her husky mezzo rewrite of “Mine eyes have seen the glory” (“Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm”) the spirit of her hero is much in evidence.
Not surprisingly, the school performances in Niagara were quickly sold out—this kind of living history beats teachers and textbooks any day. But, inadvertently, that success, led to the only fly in the ointment: the script dwells too much on the historical at the expense of the emotional. Consequently, the onlooker’s feelings more often hover around annoyance rather than outrage at North America’s shameful (but good for commerce!) treatment of slaves.
McCurdy does best at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. The young “Minty” bursts with energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm as she recalls taking care of a baby—when only seven herself—and the dangerous consequences of helping herself to a cube of sugar from a white woman’s table.
As the indefatigable octogenarian, her passion for justice and unstoppable need to help others effectively throws down the gauntlet to the comparatively spoiled audience as they shift self-consciously in their plush seats. Lines like “We was safe from the laws of the U.S.” got nervous chuckles, where the berry in the milk pail gag reaped “er, we’re-laughing-with-you” guffaws.
As the courageous Underground Railroad conductor, the avalanche of facts and scenes slipped by so quickly that it was hard to truly gauge just how it felt to return for her husband, only to find that the already free man had no interest in following his wife and had already moved on to another partner. More might have been made of the huge irony that once safely free in Canada, Tubman realized she’d never been so alone. That sense of community played into the hands of many a “Massa,” who rationalized their subhuman values by warehousing at least the healthy and docile under the same squalid roof.
Absent too was the actual moment of liberation. How must it have felt to reach the free North? What was the first conversation with a Canadian like? What kind of silent racism was practised in St. Catharines?
But let’s be clear: these seeming criticisms are, in fact, high praise. With the production confined by time (more than an hour couldn’t work with school boards …), the desire to know the rest of the story (especially the intriguing possibility that Tubman’s favourite niece might have been a daughter) is a great compliment to the sincerity and artistic skills that McCurdy brings to every line. Screenwriters/producers take note: here’s a story with legs and a talented advocate to bring it home. JWR