By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributor
The name “Sojourner Truth” is one familiar to many from American history class, but few could tell you much about her. As Black History Month begins, it is important to look back and pay homage to those who laid the first building blocks toward equality, and Prime Stage Theatre is doing just that.
For their first production of 2021, Prime Stage will be presenting Richard LaMonte Pierce’s “Sojourner,” directed by Linda Haston and starring Delana Flowers in the title role. The play is something of a full circle moment for Prime Stage.
“The first play we ever did was called ‘A Woman Called Truth,’ about Sojourner Truth, around 26 years ago,” said Wayne Brinda, artistic director for Prime Stage.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in Swartekill, New York. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter Sophia in 1826, but had to leave her other children behind. After gaining her freedom, she learned that her son Peter had been sold by her former owner. She took the issue to court and won, after months of legal proceedings.
“She went to court and demanded that she be allowed to get her children away from an owner that wanted to take them away from her,” said director Linda Haston. “She sought that in court, which was unheard of at the time.”
After changing her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843, she spoke in favor of women’s rights, helped recruit black troops to the Union Army during the Civil War, and even attempted to secure land grants for former slaves during Reconstruction.
“People know the name, but they don’t know her journey,” said Haston. “She was beyond her time as a black woman, and a pioneer for women’s rights.”
The play is set up as Sojourner reflecting on her life in her eighties, recounting several instances from her life to a journalist. Haston wanted to be sure people got an authentic impression of Truth, and sought to avoid stereotypes that are typically associated with her. The most persistent of these inaccuracies is that she spoke in a Southern dialect.
“She did not speak the colloquial language that most black slaves spoke at that time. Up until she was ten years old, she only spoke Dutch, and from there on out, she always had an accent,” said Haston. “I wanted to do the authentic Sojourner Truth, and I wanted her to have that accent throughout.”
Truth’s most well-known speech, titled “Ain’t I A Woman?”, is featured prominently in the play, but it will not be the version of the speech seen most commonly. That speech was revised after it was originally delivered into a version with a Southern dialect, which is the most common rendering of the speech seen today. The original speech, however, was transcribed by a friend of Truth’s who was in the audience, and it is this version that will be shown on stage.
“We’re doing the actual one she delivered, not the one that was revised,” said Brinda.
To ensure the authenticity of Truth’s characterization, Brinda and Haston conferenced with Descendants of the Truth, a group consisting of Sojourner Truth’s descendants. They confirmed Truth spoke with a Dutch accent, as well as that she stood six feet tall even into her old age, contradicting another common depiction of Truth as hunched over.
“I felt like I owed him the help, because he was trying to do justice and due diligence by my ancestors,” said Cory Mcliechey, president of Descendants of the Truth.
The play is part of Prime Stage’s “Prime Online” program, focusing on one-person shows centered on historical figures. The film of “Sojourner” will also be provided to schools around the Pittsburgh region, so that students can watch and discuss the play even in virtual classrooms. It is Brinda’s hope that the play will spur informed classroom discussions that help students better understand history, race, and Sojourner Truth herself.
“We’re changing people’s misconceptions and showing the truth about Sojourner Truth,” said Brinda. “That’s where the strength is: in her.”
“Sojourner” will be available online from February 12 through 26. For tickets and more information, visit primestage.com.