This is the first of WVFC’s posts in celebration of Women’s History Month—bracing stories of American women whose brilliance and bravery cry out for our attention. —Ed.
This is the tale of Sojourner Truth, one of the bravest women in American history. It is also the story of three 21st-century women who have set out to bring Sojourner’s far-too-little-known history to light 130 years after her death.
Four years ago, Linda McInerney, a theater director in Deerfield, Massachusetts, set out to “excavate the story of a great woman and to bring her life to the stage.” McInerney had an opera in mind, so she asked her friend Paula M. Kimper, a composer who had been her collaborator on several successful theatrical projects, to come aboard.
They spent a year reading dozens of biographies of worthy women. But none of these women had quite the right ‘bigger than life’ quality we were searching for,” McInerney says. “No story had the dramatic arc that an opera requires.”
McInerney eventually did find her heroine—in a dream. One night she dreamed that she and Paula were second-row-center at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton (about 15 miles from Deerfield). “There was a performer onstage, an African American woman dressed in 19th century garb, standing there readying to take her cue from the conductor,” McInerney says. “It was just a flash of a dream—30 seconds. With the woman’s intake of breath I woke up. And here’s the funny thing: I knew it was Sojourner Truth standing on that stage.”
It was 2 a.m. McInerney got out of bed, went downstairs, did a computer search. “I found a stamp, I found a bust, [it sits in Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C.], I found some women doing first-person reenactments, and I found a few people who had taken the famous “Ain’t I a woman speech” and set it to choral music. And that was it.
“I was shocked. Why isn’t there anything out there? I kept thinking. Sojourner Truth was an architect of democracy as we know it! She was the first black woman feminist ever! I started to get grumpy: Who has tucked this woman under the coffee table, and why have they done it?”
Sojourner Truth, née Isabella, was born into slavery on a Dutch farm in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. At 9 she was sold to a cruel master, then sold again and again. This was a woman who bore 5 children into slavery—one to her slavemaster—and who literally walked away from her master when she was 30, carrying her youngest child. (“I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”) When she discovered that her 7-year-old, Peter, had been kidnapped and sold in Alabama, she brought suit in a New York court—she, who could neither read nor write—and won him back. Some years later, accused of murder by members of a shadowy Christian cult in New York City, she was tried and found not guilty—and then this former slave turned around and sued her accuser for libel . . . and won.
Isabella eventually found her way to a utopian community in Northampton, Massachusetts, having changed her name to the poetic Sojourner Truth. She spent the rest of her life touring the country singing and giving mesmerizing speeches against slavery and for women’s rights.
“We Started on Faith and Love”
On the night of her dream, McInerney waited impatiently through the early-morning hours. Then, “at a decent hour, 9 o’clock, I called Paula, fired up by some kind of force. I was not going to be stopped. I told Paula, ‘I haven’t got a penny,’” McInerney says. “She said, ‘We’ll work it out.”
And they did. “We started essentially on faith and love and belief in a good project,” McInerney says. “We raised $3,000 in startup funds through Kickstarter. Then we got a Massachusetts humanities grant, and a lot of wonderful people helped as I begged and groveled on behalf of Sojourner.”
McInerney knew that the voice for this show had to come from an African American woman. Accordingly, she enlisted another friend, Talaya Delaney, “the perfect librettist; she had just received her Ph.D. from Harvard, where she studied developing theater scripts based on history.” Delaney was “excited by the possibilities and humbled by the power of this extraordinary woman’s life.” She had vivid material to work with: Because Sojourner Truth was so eloquent, many of the words in the opera belong to her.
The trio had no doubt that their Truth should be an American folk opera. Kimper drew Sojourner’s voice from early 19th century African American “Second Awakening” music. Sojourner became familiar with this music in camp meetings, where she sang spontaneously, without any hymnbook. These were called “sperichil songs” (spiritual songs), and most of them concern what the Bible says and how to live with the Spirit of God. “This opera is soulful—it’s practically R & B, accessible to every age range,” McInerney says. “It’s as much Sweet Honey in the Rock and Ella Fizgerald as it is high opera.”
Delaney’s dramatic story arc incorporates Truth’s traumatic years as a slave; her escape to freedom; her victory in court to win back her young son; her forays into religious cults and utopian communities as she searched to find her “voice” (a recurring theme in the opera); and her relentless faith in speaking out for freedom for all people.
To put on the opera they envisioned, using a volunteer chorus and an orchestra, cost them $80,000. In February 2012 they played for three sold-out nights at Northampton’s Academy of Music.
Low Royalties, Will Travel
This American heroine is so significant, McInerney and Kimper and Delaney believe, her story should be told all over this land . . . in high schools, universities, community theaters, Off Broadway. And so for the last six months they have worked to distill the opera down from two hours to 90 minutes, including intermission; to shrink it from 100 participants (including the orchestra) to 5 characters and a 7-piece chamber orchestra. Here, the ensemble, with Mari-Yan Pringle as Sojourner Truth, sings of the trauma of the battles of the Civil War.
“We used sets composed of projected paintings commissioned from a local artist, Amy Johnquest, that can fit onto a flash drive,” McInerney notes. All with the goal of making the show inexpensive enough to be presented all over the nation.
“It’s essentially a crowd-sourced opera,” McInerney explains. She describes the royalties as “very low,” for she and her colleagues want this to be accessible to schools and companies all over the country.
This past February they presented the pared-down show, with five professional singers, at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Now they’re taking Truth on the road—to Macedonia and Albania, oddly enough, this coming November.
And they invite other opera companies to reach out to them at Old Deerfield Productions, firstname.lastname@example.org, to consider staging this opera.
“Sojourner Truth was an early architect of the idea of collective action by constantly moving from gathering to gathering across the country to inspire and incite people to action,” McInerney says. “She predated Gandhi’s call to non-violence, addressing Frederick Douglass in public dialogue to seek a peaceful path to freedom. She presaged our Great Society and New Deal movements by working tirelessly to apportion land to former slaves so that they might have dignity and a home.
“We want to put her story out into the world, so that as many people as possible can hear this woman’s story—experience the beauty of Paula’s music and the power of the libretto, by Talaya, that embraces the very words of Sojourner Truth.”