Novelist, memoirist, and University of Pennsylvania senior lecturer Lorene Cary makes a high-profile playwriting debut with My General Tubman, an Arden Theatre Company commission that considers the legacy and impact of the title "abolitionist." Cary eschews the traditional biographical blueprint in favor of a fantasia-like exploration of Harriet Tubman’s activism, the echoes of which resonate and connect to the current moment. It’s an ambitious and risky choice, one that doesn’t provide an easily digestible portrait of a woman whose long, rich life contained multitudes.
The play also allows Cary to weave together the antebellum slave trade and the Civil War with the current prison-industrial complex and its own abolition movement. Harriet (Danielle Leneé, in a performance that’s both stately and galvanic) appears as her historical self, and as an apparition to the contemporary Black men on both sides of the incarceration divide. Nelson Davis (a commanding Brandon Pierce), who represents the current struggles faced by people in the system, shares a name with Tubman’s second husband, a formerly enslaved person who rose to the rank of private in the Union Army.
A finely wrought first
Director James Ijames expertly limns the past and the present, aided by an attractive abstract set (designed by Melpomene Katakalos) and Xavier Pierce’s evocative lighting design. Spare scenery and time-erasing costumes (by Maiko Matsushima) make it easy for the audience members to lose themselves between periods. The Arden has thrown its considerable resources behind this work, and no nascent playwright could ask for a more finely wrought first production.
A playwriting debut
Yet although the play bears the mark of an accomplished writer, some rookie mistakes are visible. Cary leans heavily into meta-theatricality, most evident in the inclusion of a Chorus (Aaron Bell) whose sole purpose is to make plain what is already quite obvious. At times, he seems intent on lightening the mood in darker passages, but this puckishness feels inappropriate, especially given the gravity of the overall story. Since Cary is already committed to offering a revitalized (and somewhat revisionist) perspective on a familiar figure, the presence of an overexplaining narrator seems needlessly distancing.
Cary also omits some key information related to Nelson’s arrest and the apparently indefinite confinement that follows. If the point to make here is that the justice system is punitive and slow-moving, especially toward people of color, it’s accurate and taken—but mostly through existing knowledge rather than textual evidence. The characters Nelson encounters behind bars—a gruff but kind guard with a drinking problem (Bowman Wright), an empathetic chaplain (Dax Richardson), and a fatherly fellow inmate (Damien Wallace)—all carry the faint whiff of cliché, despite committed performances from the gifted actors.
Perhaps the largest question mark pertains to the play’s conception of Harriet the woman versus Harriet the icon. Here, she takes on an almost mythical, and mystical, aura, one that can obfuscate the very human struggle behind her heroic accomplishments. Harriet believes that God guides her hand, but she herself is mortal, and that makes her toil all the more poignant and powerful. With some editing and refinement, I think this can be achieved without losing the ethereal elements grounded in the work.
A complex woman
Even though some issues linger, My General Tubman is undeniably a skillful work that deserves serious attention. The Arden should be commended for presenting a play that grapples with an important person on nontraditional terms. And Cary rightly asks that we the audience consider our own relationship to the subject at hand, by reminding us of our tendency to “project her in our own image.”
History itself is a constructed narrative, and it’s not uncommon for us to repurpose the heroes of the past for our own contemporary purposes. And Cary herself is not above doing that here. But in its best moments—and there are many—My General Tubman gets under the skin of a complex woman and shows us the ways we still walk the path she forged. And it shows the work our society still has left to do.
What, When, Where
My General Tubman. By Lorene Cary. Directed by James Ijames. Through March 8, 2020, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons with questions about accessibility services can call (215) 922-1122 or email [email protected]. Performances of My General Tubman on February 7 (8pm) and February 8 (2pm) will be open-captioned and audio-described.