Kisha Bundridge covers some interesting ground in her play, “Beyond the Oak Trees,” which uses the last Underground Railroad journey led by Harriet Tubman. The play also uses characters from 1860 and their generations-removed offspring of today to engage in a dialectic examining slavery’s influences on modern racial issues and relations.
Bundridge invites attention, but her “Beyond the Oak Trees” is missing something essential that prevents it from rising above an exchange of words, sermonizing, and information delivery to become a play.
That something is drama. There is conflict in “Beyond the Oak Trees” because the Tubman passengers from 1860 and their contemporary relatives constantly argue and bicker, about the arduousness and necessity of the journey in Tubman’s times, and about slavery’s level of significance today. These men, played by Ademide Akintilo and Elijah J. Coleman, are always in contention about something.
But the contention is pat. Coleman’s 1860 Jasper and 21st century Joseph are always doing or saying something that needs correction from Akintilo’s Sampson and Hodari. On the route from Tubman’s Maryland to Canada, seen behind a stand of oak trees that have symbolic significance for Tubman (Abigail Ramsey), Jasper whines and complains and slows down the escape by cutting his foot on grass — while others have negotiated swamps, underbrush, slave hunters, and the revolver Tubman reserves for any traveler who chooses to disembark from the Railroad.
Sampson is the righteous passenger who knows the importance of his journey and is willing to endure any hardship to take it. In modern sequences, Joseph takes the stand that slavery may be overemphasized 150 years after emancipation and the end of the Civil War while Hodari provides answers that refute Joseph and carry weight in terms of Bundridge’s script.
The problem, conflict, contention, and difference of opinion are all set-up. Bundridge runs a formulaic course that has Jasper or Joseph seeming foolish and out of touch so Sampson or Hodari can show him the error of his logic or ways. Dialogue is never written to give Jasper, and especially Joseph, a fair chance to make a salient point. Sampson’s point of view is easy to understand, but Hodari comes off as a pontificator. He registers as more of a mouthpiece for the point of view Bundridge supports, perhaps even a Bundridge surrogate, than someone having the scholarly argument or enlightened trading of attitudes that would make for interesting and less expected listening.
Bundridge elects to go into more of a “He’s right-He’s wrong” mode, and it takes bite out of “Beyond the Oak Trees” and makes it seem like a lesson in how people should think rather than a presentation of two points of view — even though the occasion for complex conflict is there. For example, the contemporary Joseph and Hodari are both friends and rival historians, each specializing in the African-American experience from pre-Revolutionary times to today.
Hodari — who Bundridge poses as the more serious, more learned scholar — is miffed that Joseph received a $20,000 grant to write a tract about African-Americans in America, the grant given on the basis that Joseph is a direct descendant of a traveler on Tubman’s last expedition, and thinks the grant should have been his. There will be some irony in Joseph receiving the grant as “Beyond the Oak Trees” proceeds.
Harriet Tubman figures in “Beyond the Oak Trees” in several ways, but she never manages to capture central attention from the characters played by Akintilo or Coleman.
Bundridge sets her play in two places significant to Tubman’s useful and committed life, the territory between Maryland and Canada travelers used to proceed to freedom and the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, an historical site in Auburn, New York — the last place Tubman resided and now preserved and operated by the National Park Service to exhibit Tubman’s articles and possessions, including that disciplining revolver.
Hodari takes Joseph to the Harriet Tubman home to gather evidence of his great, great, great grandmother’s travelling with Tubman and to research a particularly important figure in African-American history.
Bundridge does not maximize the use of the Harriet Tubman home as a setting. A ghost story that could have been developed fizzles, and facts we hear about Tubman, her life and artifacts, seem more pedantic than dramatic.
Scenes on the Railroad are more effective. Even with Sampson and Jasper doing their good-guy/bad guy routine, you get a sense of the hardship and danger of the Railroad journey. This is the stuff of drama, yet glossed over.
Ramsay, as Tubman, doesn’t get the time and attention the bickering men get. She has things to say, but they too seem like pronouncements and declamations rather than speech.
“Beyond the Oak Trees” opens with Tubman speaking poetically about an affliction, the result of a three-pound iron weight thrown at her head — when she was a slave — by one of her then overseers. This first instance leads to others, in each of which Tubman speaks of what she sees during her blackouts.
Each of these poetic segments opens with the same word, “Darkness,” which begins to be predictable, even comical. But beneath the unintended effect is salient information that provides the one time you learn significant things about Tubman, her ideas, and inspirations. It’s worth listening for the meat of these speeches. They are the best part of the play.
Bundridge works to spark interest by using Tubman’s second marriage and a personal episode between Sampson and Jasper to create some controversy. The first, Tubman’s marriage to a younger man, spawns a silly, unattractive scene of Joseph and Hodari making fun of Tubman as a “cougar.” The second works to create the drama Bundridge seeks, but is too contrived and cheap to be admired.
Abigail Ramsey gives Harriet Tubman due gravitas and is especially engaging during the character’s poetic sequences.
Though his character can be a preachy pill, Ademide Akintilo is sincere and serious in his parts. He often carries the play. Elijah J. Coleman is fine but at times takes the foolishness with which Bundridge endows her characters too far.
Perhaps the most riveting part of Marshall Jones III’s efficient production, one that maintains a tone of importance Bundridge’s script belies, are an ongoing collection of slides of African-Americans notables from the days of Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley to Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas. These, above all, show the richness and fullness of the myriad things African-Americans have provided their fellow Americans and made a point “Beyond the Oak Trees” misses.
Beyond the Oak Trees, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 26, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 3 p.m. $45. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.