The Public Humanist

Having Sisters to Dream With

The idea to create a new folk opera about the life of Sojourner Truth came in a dream. It was short, just an image really, of composer and dear friend, Paula Kimper and me sitting in the Academy of Music in Northampton and we overwhelmed with joy. We were listening to the great singer, Evelyn Harris pick up her musical cue as she took in a deep breath. It was a little surprising, as I had only seen Evelyn in concerts and never as a character onstage. She was wearing a mid- 19th century costume and filled the hall with an overpowering spirit of healing and love. I looked over to Paula filled with happiness. Then I woke up. In that waking moment I knew that she and I were watching Evelyn play Sojourner Truth in our new opera on opening night. It was a clear message and I felt that I had been given my marching orders.

I went downstairs to see who else had this idea and Googled Sojourner Truth, play, musical, opera, song. I found almost nothing: a few one-woman school shows, a choral interpretation of “Ain’t I a Woman,” nothing more. How on earth can no one have created a piece about this great woman? (I learned later that the wonderful writer and producer at Enchanted Circle Theater, Priscilla Hellweg, had exactly the same idea at the same time and she has created a beautiful piece for schools--that was affirmation, too.) Then I stayed up thinking about the beauty of this idea. Sojourner Truth, a local heroine whose truth to power helped to lift us out of slavery and into the Civil Rights Movement; she was our girl. She lived here and found her voice in Florence. Why didn’t I think of her before? I was actively searching for a project to work on that followed the model of The Captivation of Eunice Williams, the opera Paula and I created with Harley Erdman a few years ago. We wrote that piece out of hope for healing in the wake of September 11 and it had gone on to many different lives to express the healing and magic that only music can. We wanted to do it again--excavate a woman like Eunice who lived a life to change the world. We were looking for that local girl who touched the wider world. I hadn’t even thought of Sojourner Truth, whose home is nestled behind one of my favorite restaurants in Florence. How could I be so dense? Thank God for the magic of dreams. I waited ‘til morning and got in touch with Paula Kimper who simply said yes. I called Talaya Delaney, the African American playwright with whom I have collaborated on a couple of projects, and she also said yes. So the magic really was flowing. And then I got in touch with Evelyn Harris who was skeptical about it all but was at least willing to listen to the idea.

The work began. To collaborate with a composer and a playwright takes a very specific way of living, thinking, working, and believing in magic that feels a lot like a page out of a Joseph Campbell book. It feels like a collective mythic journey. We began with a full year of researching the character, Sojourner Truth. We read everything we could find on her life and times. We met with local historians who studied her life. We were fortunate to make the acquaintance of Steve Strimer of the David Ruggles Center who is the unofficial historian of Florence and leads walking tours of the village that illuminate the rich utopian society, The Northampton Association of Education and Industry. He also is chair of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue Committee. He identified the precise home that Sojourner Truth owned where two fugitive slaves lived, and tracked down some 20 sites possibly related to the Underground Railroad’s activities. Steve has been instrumental in dreaming through Sojourner’s life with us and helping craft how it might have been experienced at that time through his deeply informed imagination.

Talaya is also trained as a historian, with a PhD in History of American Civilization and an MA in US History from Harvard, as well as an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. She has an amazing way of distilling the dozens of books we read together into taut poetry and human voice. As she said, “For me, writing is a means to connect with those forces that breathe life in us, that demand to be heard and seen. Language is one way to evoke worlds that seem beyond us, or apart from us, but when viewed more closely, are revealed to be integral to our experience. As a historian and playwright, I am particularly interested in how voices from the past shape how we live and exist in the world today. Working on Truth has been an extraordinary experience for me, in that it is a project that connects past to present, the struggles and triumphs of our collective history to the struggles of this present moment. Because Truth is an opera, the palette to bring this world to life is vast and wonderfully challenging. I am thrilled to be working with Paula Kimper, and see my words as a vessel through which the true power of Truth--the music--can take shape and shine. The project was conceived and imagined by director Linda McInerney, and working on it has also allowed me to draw on the strength of her vision. Truth is truly a collaborative project, and its collaboration has made it a place of learning, growth, and imagination for all who are involved in it.”

We are developing a libretto that follows the trajectory of Sojourner’s life beginning in 1817, when she hears of a proclamation to outlaw slavery in ten years. This moment is followed by her walk toward freedom in 1826 with her baby, Sophie, on her back one year before slavery was to be abolished in her home state of New York, when she was promised freedom by and from her owner John Dumont if she carried out her work to his satisfaction. She worked so feverishly that she cut the index finger from her own hand by accident--a loss that she would show with raised hand before audiences in the 21 states where she spoke tirelessly until her death in 1883.

Some pivotal events in the opera include:

  • Her efforts to convince her dying father of their impending freedom.
  • The kidnapping of her son Peter at seven years old and her triumph in court to regain motherhood of her battered little boy.
  • Her walk to New York where she learned the power of the spoken word to inspire and move people to action against injustice.
  • Her human frailty when she was swept up in the personality cult of Matthias where she again fought and gained justice in the courtroom against the libelous accusations of murder against her.
  • The moment when her God gives her the name, Sojourner.
  • Her walking from New York to Florence, Massachusetts where she lived and worked in freedom and equality in the community of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry and found her calling as an abolitionist feminist and wrote her autobiography with Olive Gilbert.
  • Her difficult relationship with Frederick Douglass.
  • Her shattering of faith as she bears witness to the destruction caused by the Civil War and the deep injustice in the treatment of the Freedmen in hospital.
  • Her action that foreshadowed Rosa Parks’, when Sojourner Truth refuses to leave a street car and is thrown to the curb dislocating her arm and her subsequent decision to recommence the fight for justice.
  • Sojourner’s coming to peace in her last years with the never-ending struggle toward freedom for all.

But this is getting ahead of how we got there. We ate meals, drank tea and talked. The three of us met weekly or bi-monthly for about a year to dream through and discuss how to build the story. There are hundreds of characters in her life, and more events, all of importance. And there were many questions. How do we choose which will tell her story best? Which were the most theatrical? And can we capture the magic of that dream? The dream came to life as, after each of these meetings, Talaya quickly wrote up the idea into a poetic, powerful scene. And with an arc in mind we built slowly to come up with an Act I.

Here’s a song:

(Truth in Northampton. William Lloyd Garrison and Olive Gilbert watch her.)

Truth: I think I can see my mother now

As she stood that night

Under heaven

"My child we will be sold

and we won't see each other again.

But when you are far away

remember I see the same moon

I see the same stars

when we die we shall both go

to the same heaven."

I haven't seen her since.

Mama told me to pray to God

to make bad people good.

But I prayed God'd kill 'em,

seemed quicker I guess.

Since then, God taught me mercy,

Jesus is mercy.

But come judgement day

what will the white people say?

Slavery must end today.

It was early in the morning,

it was early in the morning,

just at the break of day

when he rose, when he rose,

and went to heaven on a cloud.

Olive: The Lord reveals everything to her, William

It seems so, does it not?

Sojourner?

(Sojourner comes towards them, smiling.)

All was flowing, we were relishing the process, and it seemed that there was nothing in the way of it; then we had our first mythic curve ball. Talaya’s husband received a Fulbright in Chile and they were leaving for 9 months! How could we continue our work? What I love about working with women, particularly Talaya and Paula, is that we are so used to juggling families, jobs, and others’ needs that even the biggest hurdles are shared experiences without the drama that could arise. There’s no big boss, no body “in charge” to bully or fight against. There isn’t any “no” at all. It’s all a version of “yes” and it’s simply about how we work through it. So we figured it out. Talaya figured out a new country, a new home, language, childcare, work, food and she kept writing. And whenever a new opportunity for connection came about, like creating a choral suite or an education program, Paula just said yes, even though it meant much more work for her. Not to mention that these two women were saying yes to a project that didn’t have a penny in the bank. Just a dream.

So that’s what we do. We keep it going. Women’s work. Just yes. We support each other in the ways that we can. Sojourner had real adversity in her life and her story must be told. So we are telling it. We are engaged in a wondrous struggle while we create this new work; to articulate the life of this remarkable woman; to seek to do so in ways that haven’t yet been tried; to build a form that is intimate, accessible and engages the human voice and spirit in ways that are recognizable, to weave the classically trained voice with the gut-powered sound of people who sing to stay hopeful and alive through the grueling life of slavery. We are actively seeking a form expression that will touch every heart whether or not she has ever seen an opera before; a form that leaves room for improvisation, a rough sound, and that allows the vocal instrument to shiver the spheres. And it feels right that we are working women doing so. It is a great honor to have sisters to dream with.

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