Certain parts of Harriet Tubman’s story are well-known. For example, the fact that she led over 300 enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Other facts about her life, like that she had temporal lobe epilepsy stemming from a head injury she suffered as a child, are lesser-known.
As an adult, Tubman occasionally slipped into hallucinations.
“She had these spells where she said three things happened,” said author Lorene Cary. “Music tumbled from the air, she flew over cities and towns, and sometimes she said she was allowed to touch the mind of God.”
Cary used those episodes to leverage a certain poetic license when writing her biographical play, “My General Tubman,” beginning January 16th at the Arden Theatre.
In the play, Tubman travels through time to contemporary Philadelphia, visiting a prisoner and the chaplain that looks in on him.
Both in real life and in the literary hallucination, Tubman recruited African Americans to rise up against oppression. In the play, she pulls that prisoner, Nelson Davis, back into the 19th century to fight against slavery. (The character shares a name with Tubman’s second husband.)
“I did not feel I could take liberty with her life in the past,” said Cary. “She did go for her last two brothers on Christmas. Her mother did come out and look up the road every couple hours. Her mother did hide the younger brother under the floorboards when the slave buyers came to look at him. She did help Nelson Davis with some sort of remission of his consumption.
“The only thing that’s crazy is she shows up in the detention center here,” chuckled Cary. “I know that’s a big liberty.”
Cary has won plenty of accolades for her writing. Her memoir, “Black Ice,” was a best-seller, and her first novel, “The Price of a Child,” was the first selection for the Free Library’s city-wide reading initiative, One Book One Philadelphia, in 2003.
She also founded Arts Sanctuary, a nonprofit and annual festival supporting Black arts in Philadelphia, and used to sit on the former School Reform Commission for the Philadelphia School District.
But she had never written a play before. “My General Tubman” is her first stab at writing for the stage. She calls herself the “oldest rookie in the Delaware Valley.”
Cary had been circling the stage for several years. She was accepted into an artist residency program for librettists and composers at American Lyric Theater, an opera company in New York City. During that time, she wrote a one-act opera, “The Gospel According to Nana,” about her grandmother.
Terry Nolen, the producing artistic director of the Arden Theatre, said Cary approached him three years ago about producing that opera as a musical.
“It’s not a musical,” Nolen remembers saying. “In its scope, and how it’s written, it’s very much an opera.”
But while they were talking about other things, Cary’s ideas about Harriet Tubman intrigued him. That conversation ended with Nolen offering Cary a commission to write “My General Tubman.”
“Our mission is to tell great stories with great storytellers. Lorene is truly a great storyteller,” said Nolen. “It seemed like such an obvious choice to see if Lorene was interested in writing for the stage.”
Cary said she has reached a stage of her life where she is finally ready to write for the theater.
“I haven’t been able to write performance until now because I had a family,” she said. “When you’re kids are younger – some people can, but I could not have figured out a way to stay at a rehearsal until seven, go home and write, and get up and re-write and not talk to anybody. You can’t do that if your kids are in middle school. I couldn’t.”
She says she has more stories in her head, many of them best told from the stage.
“What I really want is that space between the audience and the actors. That’s the synaptic junction. That’s where electricity sparks,” said Cary. “That’s where [Tubman] was most brilliant: in the moment, figuring it out. She had a spiritual and psychic life that was brilliant.”