In our country’s history, there are a few figures that stick out as iconic, notable and incredibly impactful. One of those figures is Harriet Tubman. We’ve all heard the stories about Tubman and her involvement with the Underground Railroad, saving the lives of many enslaved people while risking her own multiple times to do so. But what many people forget is that, although Tubman is the brave soul we have all learned about in history class and in books, she also was a human being with mortal feelings—she loved, she was frightened and, at times, was even vulnerable.
In Lorene Carey’s world premiere of “My General Tubman” at the Arden Theatre Company, audiences will get a full scope picture of Harriet Tubman. This gourgeous portrait piece of a deeply courageous woman showcases everything we all know about Tubman, and so much more. Danielle Lenée, who plays Harriet Tubman sat down with Metro to discuss the show, share more on the immensely absorbing story and dive into how she hopes the iconic figure of Harriet Tubman will be tangible for people now more than ever.
How the Arden’s “My General Tubman” makes Harriet Tubman more tangible than ever
What first piqued your interest to join “My General Tubman”?
I worked with James Ijames (“My General Tubman’s” director) on a show this year, and he asked if I had any interest in the show, and if I wanted to audition. I already enjoy working with James, and I also like working on new plays, plus it’s just an honor for someone to ask you to play Harriet Tubman. So I definitely wanted to explore what that experience could be.
What did you do to prepare and what are you personally trying to bring to playing Harriet Tubman?
Prior to beginning rehearsals, I did a lot of research on just who she was and the time she lived in and I wanted to get an overall sense of what people said about her. I just wanted to get the essence of who she was and put myself in that mindset, and I learned so much just about her as a black woman. As we got to rehearsals though, it became: What is the story that we are trying to tell? How can I do my due diligence in telling that story and how can I bring the spirit of who she is to life in the best way that I can?
Since this is a world premiere, can you give me a synopsis of what people can expect from the story?
We get to see the complex journey of Harriet Tubman’s life, and we get to explore the integral moments of her life. We also get to see the legacy, impact and effect that she still has on today. We see her in these moments when she is fighting and resisting to dismantle the institution of slavery and we also see those parallel connections between the institution of slavery and mass incarceration today. So you get a little of her legacy and her history.
Are you nervous at all to play such a strong historical figure?
It is some big shoes to fill, and there is just so much information, she’s iconic. Sometimes in people’s minds, that’s hard to access. So it is a lot to take on and I do hope that I do her justice and I just think continuing to tap into her spirit could possibly do that.
Are the other characters in the show also drawn from history or are they fictional?
A little bit of both, we do have the character of John Brown, who is the historical John Brown that led the Harpers Ferry Raid. We have a couple of depicted characters based on abolitionists women and people from the south, and we have some characters who play present-day men who are incarcerated but also are spies for the Union under Tubman’s leadership
What are you most excited for audiences to learn about Harriet Tubman?
I will say that what I most enjoy about this piece is being able to show Harriet Tubman’s tender side. We often see her as a general, and we see her as a conductor and depicted as this courageous, strong and heroic woman who dared against all odds—which is all correct, but there’s so much more to this woman. I love being able to show her fall in love and be vulnerable and be tender, because that is also very true to her story. So those are my favorite moments from the show. It’s really allowing the audience to see her in a full scope, not just what we know she was able to do with the Underground Railroad, but to bring her back to a level where we can connect to her personally and connect to the act of wanting to resist an institution that crippled us and tap into a spiritual connection of something that’s bigger than us. Just her wanting to make a difference and living courageously, but also still effecting humanity in a tender and vulnerable way. I hope she becomes tangible to people.
Catch “My General Tubman” at the Arden Theatre Company Jan. 16- March 1