On paper, there is much to be excited about in Arden Theatre Company’s new offering, My General Tubman, a world premiere by Philadelphia literary luminary, Lorene Cary. It is directed by James Ijames, whose Gem of the Ocean won numerous Barrymore Awards and critical accolades. The cast features some of Philadelphia’s best known and most reliable actors, including, Danielle Leneé as Harriet Tubman and Peter DeLaurier as John Brown. The show tells a fantastical version of Harriet Tubman’s life story–with time travel! Given the recent success in merging American history and science fiction (see Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad) I was on board for the ride. The show is so promising, that they have already extended until March 8. However, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
The problems for me lie squarely with the script. Cary, a well-regarded author of memoir, fiction, and books for children, is new to the medium of theatrical writing, and unfortunately, it shows. Moments that are highly dramatic are glossed over in narration, and logistical details and historical tidbits that slow the play down are often presented as dialogue. The result is a halting, tonally inconsistent play that doesn’t seem to know what it is. One minute, we are being explicitly told (before we are shown) the horrors of the prison industrial complex, the next we see standard-issue Disney Channel time travel jokes (if you have ever wanted to see Harriet Tubman jam out to Lizzo, here is your chance!).
Leneé portrays Tubman (a Herculean task in and of itself) with strength and tenderness. As Chorus, Aaron Bell gives a gestural performance, guiding the audience through the various settings and providing lots of historical details. Elsewhere Peter DeLaurier and Cheryl Williams play historical figures John Brown and Abigail Wright gamely. Brandon Pierce’s performance of Nelson Davis develops throughout the two acts; his ending moments with Tubman are also his finest. Dax Richardson, Damien J. Wallace, and Bowman Wright commit to their roles but are a touch broad.
Ijames’ staging is dynamic and creative utilizing a mostly bare stage with two chairs and a sliding screen (set design by Melpomene Katakalos). Lighting Designer, Xavier Pierce, effectively creates a sense of time and place and costumes by Maiko Matsushima range from utilitarian to stunning.
In his Director’s Note, Ijames writes, “Harriet Tubman was beautiful. I mean this in all of the ways we use the term…She is a historical giant and a massive figure we ascribe small fictions and great honor upon.” In this work, for brief moments, we do get to see Tubman be beautiful. But you can see the play straining to contain immensity that is Tubman’s legacy. I hope those that see it continue to grapple with the questions she leaves in her wake.