BWW Review: BEYOND THE OAK TREES at Crossroads Theatre is Exceptional Drama
Though she rose to fame leading slaves to freedom a good century and a half ago, Harriet Tubman is in some ways the ideal topic for a 2017 drama. An America that is thinking anew and urgently about race, gender, and human rights can only benefit from a second look at the slave-freeing, Confederacy-undermining Tubman; a performing arts market that, via Hamilton, has rediscovered the power of historical playwriting can only stand to profit. Perhaps sensing this perfect intersection of opportunities, Crossroads Theatre has staged the World Premiere of Beyond the Oak Trees, a three-actor drama that addresses the entirety of Tubman's life-and shows why Tubman's life still matters.
Directed by Marshall Jones III, Beyond the Oak Trees doesn't simply place Tubman's accomplishments in the context of the Fugitive Slave Law or the Civil War; it fully embraces the mission of relating Tubman's character to our own times. Playwright Kisha Bundridge's script involves two parallel narratives. The first finds Tubman (Abigail A. Ramsay), the "Moses of Her People," leading a party of liberty-seeking slaves north. She must wrangle with a pair of her companions Sampson (Ademide Akintilo) and Jasper (Elijah J. Coleman), whose plantation life has been a source of lingering tension and concealed anguish. The second shifts to the 21st century, as two erudite yet good-humored young researchers Joseph (Elijah J. Coleman) and Hodari (Ademide Akintilo) take a trip to the Harriet Tubman Retirement Home. Ramsay reappears as Jessica, a Home custodian, one who may be more than she appears.
You will leave Beyond the Oak Trees as a bit of an expert in all things Tubman, from her harsh childhood to her late-in-life marriage to a man more than two decades her junior. Yet there are other forms of immersion, too: the dusky lighting, woodland set design, and mystical monologues from Tubman herself render a trip along the Underground Railroad as an uncanny, almost dreamlike experience.
And after the performance, you will find that you are still immersed in the world of Beyond the Oak Trees, though in a very different way. Akintilo and Coleman's scenes at the Harriet Tubman Retirement Home both propel the plot and raise every topic from the drawbacks of Hollywood depictions of slavery to the advisability of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Ponder these issues-debate them, if you need to-over dinner or on the way home. After all, pretty soon you'll be paying the tip or buying parking passes with the play's heroine: within a few years, Tubman will be booting Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill. The debates may only continue, but Tubman's legacy of perseverance and dignity will endure.
Beyond the Oak Trees will be performed through February 26th. For tickets, go online to www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org or call 732.545.8100. Crossroads is located at 7 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick in the heart of the city's vibrant arts district with convenient parking and mass transit options available.
Photo Credit: William M. Brown