“Beyond the Oak Tree,” a play by Kisha Bundridge that is premiering at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick through Feb. 26, offers a vivid but limited portrait of Harriet Tubman. As played by Abigail A. Ramsey (under the direction of Crossroads’ producing artistic director, Marshall Jones III), she is seen helming an Underground Railroad journey with fierce determination. But the play’s central relationship is really between its two other characters.
Or, I should really say, two pairs of other characters. Ademide Akintilo and Elijah J. Coleman play two slaves who benefited from Tubman’s help in 1860, as well as two present-day college students visiting the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, N.Y. The relationships between these pairs of friends are more or less parallel. In 1860, Akintilo’s Sampson is brave and wise while Coleman’s Jasper is weak and fearful; in the present day, the Akintilo’s intimidating Hodari berates Coleman’s immature Joseph with righteous indignation for not for not paying enough attention, in his academic work, to slavery and its long-term influence on African-American culture.
Back in 1860, Tubman talks about different aspects of her life, and appears in some scenes alone, reciting mystical monologues in the night. Ramsey also has a role in the present day scenes, playing Jessica, a woman devoted to keeping Tubman’s spirit alive at the Home for the Aged.
There are some awkward aspects to “Beyond the Oak Trees.” A subplot, having to do with Jasper having slept with Sampson’s wife, seems like an attempt to crowbar in some soap opera-style melodrama. And at the Home for the Aged, presumably valuable Tubman artifacts are just lying around; Hodari and Joseph can pick them up and do whatever they want with them, without a second thought.
Do we get a fully fleshed out overview of Tubman’s life? Not really. It’s more like a snapshot of this great woman, about halfway through her long life, along with a second story imaginatively connecting her to the present.
The last four performances of “Beyond the Oak Trees” take place Feb. 24 at 8 p.m., Feb. 25 at 3 and 8 p.m., and Feb. 26 at 3 p.m.; visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
The theater’s next production, “Sarah Sings a Love Song” (about jazz singer Sarah Vaughan), takes place March 9-26 and will be its last in its current building, which will be destroyed so a new performing arts center can be built. Crossroads will start utilizing the new building after construction is completed in 2019; its next two seasons, though, will take place in various venues throughout the state.