My General Tubman by Lorene Cary at Arden Theatre

            Writer, teacher, activist, organizer—the amazing Lorene Cary has now written a play about another amazing woman, Harriet Tubman. Taking place in two eras, the mid 19th century and today, Tubman is both real and imaginary as she fights to free slaves in her own time, and appears to four men within the walls of a Philadelphia prison today. But  it’s not simply a story about Harriet Tubman. It’s entitled “My General Tubman” because it  is about how a young man, Nelson Davis, sees this remarkable woman.

            Who is this Nelson Davis? He is a guy who has just been thrown into jail for trying to protect his sister. It is also the name of the young man (22 years younger than Tubman) who married Harriet after the Civil War. In both cases, it is his Tubman.

            Cary takes liberties with what may or may not have happened in a meeting that Tubman (Danielle Lenee) had with John Brown (Peter DeLaurier) before his infamous raid at Harper’s Ferry. But Tubman’s commitment to rescuing slaves from Maryland (from where she had escaped), is her central goal. We see her as she lectures to the rich at socialites to raise more money for her cause. We watch as she tries to enlist Black soldiers into the Union army. Ironically, though her presence is central to the story, it is the other four men whose tales are just as important. Two prisoners, a chaplain, a jailer- they each find in Tubman a spirit that gives them the strength they need to liberate themselves. Brandon Pierce, Damien J. Wallace, Dax Richardson, and Bowman Wright give the four characters meaningful texture.

            Tubman, whose youngest brother was name Moses, was dubbed Moses herself, as she brought slaves out of bondage. What I loved about the Arden production was they presented a Harriet who was real. They didn’t try to create a mystic, figure. She had work to do and she did it. Even when she appears to the men in jail, when she becomes an inspiration for them, it is not in some larger-than-life gimmicky way.

            It’s performed on an open stage with a painted floor that resembles a map, which can easily represent the lands and the waterways the runaway slaves had to traverse.

            The play succeeds on many levels, but not all. To bridge the scenes and provide more information, Cary uses a one-man chorus. But it is not well defined and sometimes even silly. She will need to do some more editing of that role to give the play more depth.

            The other problem I had with the production was in the presentation on the Arden stage. It was done in the three-quarter round. If you go to the play, get a ticket in the middle section, or you will miss much of the story when the actors give you their backs for many scenes. At the break, I asked others in the audience to get clarity on what happened, and they too, missed the lines.

            All in all, Director James Ijames has pieced together an interesting and unique portrait of Tubman and her followers. Though it can use some more refinement, it is  educational, fanciful, and entertaining.

“My General Tubman” by Lorene Cary, Thru March 8, 2020.  Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215-922-1122.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: