The Woman Who Has Played Harriet Tubman 200 Times

In the theatre world, there are ordinary roles, and then there are roles of a lifetime.

Harriet Tubman is among the latter.

The famed abolitionist and humanitarian is such an iconic figure in American history, rescuing so many slaves with missions along with Underground Railroad, that playing her onstage even once would seem impossibly intimidating.

Christine Dixon has done it almost 200 times.

It started for the New York City actress with a small four-show contract back in 2008, to perform the show "Harriet Tubman Herself" by the playwright Morna Murphy Martell. To her surprise, the bookings just didn't stop.

In churches and schools, in children's museums and performing arts centers, her one-woman show kept rolling along. Now, seven years later, Harriet is pretty much a full-time gig, and the actress is booked all the way through November 2015.

Dixon sees the role as something of a sacred duty, since the historical knowledge of many modern audiences is -- to put it kindly -- lacking.

"I'm surprised by how many people have never even heard of Harriet," says Dixon, whose interactive show often includes a Q&A session afterwards. "Sometimes they can't tell me when the Civil War began or ended. Sometimes people know Harriet's name, but that's it.

"Once, when I performed in the Bronx, they even thought that I was the real Harriet Tubman."

Of course, the real Tubman would have been almost 200 years old by now. But you can be forgiven for mistaking what you're seeing onstage, since Dixon goes to such pains to embody Tubman's spirit.

Before every show, her ritual is to let her hair down, brush it out in the style of the day, and put on the many layers of Harriet's costume. Then she gets on her knees, and prays to ancestors to help her tell Harriet's story.

"As I'm walking onstage, I can feel my body getting older," she says. "Physically I feel like I become her during the show, like I'm channeling her. Sometimes people tell me, 'I feel like Christine left, and Harriet came in.' "

Dixon plays Tubman in various stages of her remarkable life: All the way from a five-year-old child raised in slavery, to a 13-year-old teenager whose skull was fractured as she helped a young man to freedom, to the world-famous warrior who in her final years had been celebrated by everyone from U.S. Senators to Queen Victoria.

She admits that it can be tough to keep the attention of audiences sometimes comprised of bored toddlers, too-cool-for-school teenagers, even gang members. But the powerful spirituals she sings -- like Go Down Moses, Wade in the Water, and Follow the Drinking Gourd -- usually manage to silence even the most unruly crowds.

Moments get even more powerful when Dixon performs in venues with actual connections to the real Harriet. She recently did a show in a Newark church, for instance, where Tubman herself hid back in the 1850s.

She also performed at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in upstate Auburn, New York, at a location where Tubman once bought a home and acreage for her own parents.

Dixon's 200th full performance as Harriet is due to take place mid-March, at a New Jersey children's museum. And as far as she is concerned, Harriet might well turn into a role of a lifetime. "I would love to play her until my death," she says.

Maybe the most powerful compliment of all came to Dixon in a dream about eight months ago, when Tubman herself made an appearance.

"She told me she was proud of me, and kissed me on the forehead," Dixon remembers. "And she told me to keep telling her story."

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