EASTVILLE, Writers’ Theatre Chicago. History is wasted on the young. Every fifth-grader, in the north at least, learns about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. But what they seldom hear is that, in the eyes of the law, Tubman was a criminal. Leading runaway slaves to Canada was a federal offense in direct violation of the Fugitive Slave Act–the whole Underground Railroad was one big criminal conspiracy.
The most powerful sections of Ellen M. Lewis’s Eastville are those that communicate just how dangerous Tubman’s enterprise was and how much fear the fugitive slave law inspired among freedmen and slaves alike. (In fact, the law was sometimes used to drag slaves who’d purchased their freedom back into servitude.) When Tubman enters–especially the way Celeste Williams plays her, all piss and righteous anger–there’s no mistaking this steely-eyed, pistol-toting outlaw for the goody-goody antislavery activist of elementary school textbooks. Likewise when a white stranger, possibly a runaway-slave bounty hunter, knocks at Christine Chaffee’s door, there’s no mistaking the fear that wells up in this freedwoman’s soul.
Unfortunately, Lewis undermines her story with some improbable plot twists, a needless subplot about Chaffee’s yearning to run away with a lover we never see, and several climaxes so melodramatic they would have been laughable if the subject matter weren’t so deadly serious. –Jack Helbig