Harriet Tubman is an American icon. But author and activist Lorene Cary believes the almighty status also makes Tubman’s life story feel “less than human.”
In her playwriting debut, My General Tubman, Cary hopes to bring out Tubman, the individual, by shedding light on the revered abolitionist’s life apart from the Underground Railroad. It runs Jan. 16 through March 1 at Arden Theatre and is being directed by James Ijames.
Tubman suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy due to a head injury sustained as a child and would often have headaches, seizures, and at times, visions. My General Tubman is in part a mythical exploration of what some of those visions might’ve looked like.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about her experiences with that,” Cary said. “The play is predicated on the idea that, during those times, she is capable of visiting a detention center in Philadelphia” to recruit men to help her fight in a raid at West Virginia’s Harpers Ferry with fellow abolitionist John Brown.
The play also touches on the unspooling of her five-year marriage to her first husband, John Tubman — who became involved with another woman after Harriet escaped slavery — and her budding romance with second husband Nelson Davis.
While it follows a nonlinear timeline, set both in the present day and the 19th century, the play is largely based on historical events, like Tubman’s involvement in the Civil War raid on South Carolina’s Combahee Ferry. In that 1863 operation, she helped to rescue hundreds of slaves — and became the only woman to lead a military expedition during the war.
Cary, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, became a literary force in the early ’90s with her debut memoir, Black Ice. In 1995, she published her first novel, The Price of a Child, based on an escaped slave’s journey to freedom. It illuminates Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad history along the way.
In 1998, Cary founded the organization Art Sanctuary, which promotes black art and literature through lectures, workshops, and performances. She teaches fiction and nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote the libretto for the opera The Gospel According to Nana.
Initially, Cary said, she didn’t want to write any stories about Tubman’s life because “everybody already knew about her.” But that changed about 10 years ago when she visited the Historic Cold Spring Village near Cape May with her family.
“At that time, [Cold Spring Village] only had one photo — the official photo that you see everywhere of [Tubman] — and a tiny little caption that said she came to work at the Cape May Hotel in the summers to make money for her winter raids and escapes,” Cary remembered. “I asked the Cape May Historical Society how many summers she worked or anything else about her time there.”
She was told, “This is all we know right now.”
Riddled with curiosity about Tubman’s connection to the Cape May region, Cary said that she was inspired to weave an aria inspired by Tubman into an opera, unrelated to Tubman, that she had been working on at the time.
“I had no other facts,” Cary said. “All I had was my own overwhelming obsession.” When the opera didn’t materialize, “I couldn’t let go of that little kernel, so I decided to write a play,” she said.
Like the playwright, lead actress Danielle Leneé found a kernel to hang onto as she worked to embody Harriet Tubman onstage — in this case, a voice.
In early rehearsals, Leneé said, she struggled with “finding [Tubman’s] spirit.”
“I was trying to figure out how she would have sounded,” Leneé said. “I didn’t want to put on a voice of how we imagined slaves to sound. That wouldn’t have been accurate.”
For guidance, Leneé studied black female actors who “embodied confidence and exuded grace” like Diahann Carroll, Jenifer Lewis, and Phylicia Rashad.
Tubman is in her 40s in the play, and Leneé imagined she would have spoken with the same authority. “These women have been in the industry for a long time," Leneé said. “So when they speak, it’s something that’s learned through experience and [it’s] not something that you automatically have ... Those are the qualities that I listened for.”
Director Ijames found critical and popular success with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Arden last year, earning nine Barrymore Awards for excellence in Philadelphia theater — the most of any play — including the prize for best director.
When he was approached by Arden to direct My General Tubman, he said he agreed because it aligns with one of his notions for what makes for compelling theater: Work that requires an audience to engage with blackness as something "full and complete and not in need of change or development or augmentation in any way.”
When telling historical black stories, Ijames said, “we’ve moved out of a moment where we feel like we could be cute or coy, or even passive in the way we say things.”
He wants to tell black stories in a way that makes people “grapple with the impact of black figures,” he said. He feels it’s the current generation’s responsibility "to continue their legacy.”
My General Tubman is one of many productions this season based on noteworthy black Americans:
Thurgood, a biographical play about Thurgood Marshall, is onstage now (through Feb. 9) at the Walnut Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, starring Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award winner Johnnie Hobbs Jr. as the Supreme Court justice.
On Feb. 10, Philadelphia Artists’ Collective and Theatre in the X are doing a staged reading at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake of In Splendid Error, a historical drama based on the friendship between Frederick Douglass and John Brown.
The Agitators, also about Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, opens Feb. 28 (through March 22) at Theatre Horizon in Norristown.
Bayard Rustin: Inside Ashland, a musical about the civil rights giant Bayard Rustin, makes its world premiere May 13 at People’s Light in Malvern (through June 7).
Why the interest in black historical figures?
“We feel like we need it now,” Cary said. “We don’t understand our own democracy, our Constitution, the fights we made to make this country what it is. And one of the ways we seek to understand is by putting it into popular culture.”
My General Tubman
Jan. 16-March 1 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St.