If this were some other city, maybe there wouldn’t be so many wires in front of this corner building, Art Sanctuary’s double-sided mural images of the 1920s power couple, G. Edward and Addie Dickerson by the brilliant Belize-born, L.A.- and Detroit-raised, artist Ernel Martinez. That’s why I had to get right up under Ernel’s aerial lift to see the painting in process, and the imprint of the bricks, and the blue sky that has looked down on us forever accepting generously the toxic self-absorption of our prayers.
Every part of this image speaks to me and about art-making, activism, struggle, shame, hope, family, faith, mortality, race, oppression, resilience, making a way out of no way, and Philly. Ta-da! And four blocks east of where my husband and I raised our daughters; four blocks south of The Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s longest-running black newspaper, where I published my first paid article: a feature on the visit to UPenn of the brilliant Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
The lift itself almost gets in the way of the painting. It’s big and mechanical, but that’s what it takes to get reach the place where the art can happen. It’s like tech days when director James Ijames coordinates as light, design, sound, and costumes add new, complicated layers to the work of the actors who are bringing to life my new play My General Tubman. Because this is my first play, they’ve all endured workshop-style, whack-a-mole, new pages experience well into the time when they really need a working damn script. Along with dramaturg Michele Volansky, they’ve all questioned, interpreted, suggested, improvised, and carried the story.
The lift for this play began with Arden Theater’s new-play development process, with Producing Artistic Director Terry Nolen sipping coffee with me patiently, after calling off a workshop, because the script I’d turned in was not worth expending everyone’s time and the new-play development money.
Terry: So tell me your favorite play.
Me: Well, this one is kind of based on…
Terry: [Smiles encouragement, mildly, as if he is confident I’m capable of more than the piece of crap I turned in, because I was desperate to try something new, reaching for better, but failing, as one does, constantly, in writing.]
Me: Henry the Fifth. Shakespeare’s.
Terry: Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming!
Shakespeare’s Henry V was beloved by the 19th Century Philadelphia black drama clubs, and I loved that they loved it, this Renaissance myth-making tale about the few hundred cold and sick medieval English soldiers — their “gayness and gilt…all besmirched/With rainy marching…” — facing tens of thousands of sleek, well-armed, well-rested French troops. How could a group of free black people in Philadelphia not thrill to Henry’s St. Crispin’s speech — “We few, we happy few/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother…”? Black Philadelphians had been brought to and born in an America whose founding freedom required their enslavement. And slavery required unrelenting violence, legal assault, and an ongoing cultural campaign against black people. Rot at the core.
After novels, The Price of a Child and If Sons, Then Heirs, about freedom, slavery, and lynching; a non-fiction books for young readers, Free! Great Escapes on the Underground Railroad; and then a memoir Ladysitting, about caretaking and my grandmother’s life spanning the century from Jim Crow to Obama, what could lift me closer to these stories?
Tubman time-travels, indeed, visiting everybody: biographers from Ann Petry to Kate Larsen, Catherine Clinton, and Philadelphia’s own Erica Armstrong Dunbar; to writer TaNehisi Coates; and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons.
For me, she appeared first as a stand-alone in a scene I was writing for an opera libretto; then in this play. Take the idea of Harriet Tubman traveling through time to a Philadelphia Detention Center to fulfill her calling; plop it like Alka Seltzer into a work community of passionate professionals; let them interpret it for a live audience — social, ephemeral, spiritual, spoken, sung, living in the moment, a little Harriet in the Philadelphia night.
No doubt Harriet Tubman walked by this corner.