In grade schools across America, children are asked to make dioramas. Using shoeboxes and Plasticine, preteens recreate everything from dinosaur swamps to colonial cabins. The projects are simple, makeshift and moderately educational.
Harriet Tubman Loved Somebody, by William F. Mayfield, is the grown-up version of this third-grade pastime. Presented by Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Tubman is a sloppy, monotone account of the slave-liberator's life, but for kids too young to know theater's possibilities, it gets the job done. Or rather it would get the job done, if only the actors could remember their lines.
If Mayfield had picked a more obscure hero, the play might not be so embarrassing. But this is Harriet Tubman, one of the most courageous figures in American history. Students who can't find Alaska on a map still know who Harriet Tubman was, and representing her life -- especially her personal life, as Mayfield aims to do -- is an enormous responsibility. Double the responsibility when it's presented by Pittsburgh's most venerable African-American theater company.
To make matters weirder: Tubman has three different directors, including Kuntu founder Vernell Lillie and two directors-in-training. Could not one of them have asked the actors to pick up the pace?
To summarize: Harriet is a slave, and after an ornery courtship, she marries the brash John Tubman. Above all, Harriet wants her freedom, but negotiations with masters and lawyers yield nothing. She escapes to Philadelphia, and then, in a scene that should be resounding, she resolves to return to Maryland and rescue as many slaves as she can. But when she reunites with John, he shucks her off.
Mayfield's impulse is noble -- to humanize an icon. After all, Harriet Tubman was a person first, then a radical, then a timeless champion of civil rights. Like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Tubman deserves a real personality, complete with flaws and early failures that make the latter triumphs so much more powerful.
But Tubman is a clunker, made clunkier by chaotic blocking and pauses long enough to insert commercial breaks. The dialogue is too banal for adults, too bawdy for kids. This is all the more disappointing because Kuntu has borrowed a great stage -- Pittsburgh Playwrights, a venue that is vastly superior, in every way, to their regular space on Pitt's campus. For years, Kuntu has been stuck in a converted lecture hall, a room with no acoustics, bad lighting and way too many seats. This has always been unworthy of the company, and Kuntu should benefit from a better playhouse. But Tubman isn't exactly a good omen.
The season is young, though. There's always next time.
Harriet Tubman Loved Somebody continues through Sat., Nov. 20. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org