Drawing inspiration from her pentecostal upbringing, Sojourner Truth and a 1998 workshop retreat for African Americans, Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, English, wrote one of the three monologues in a play that was performed at the National Theatre London. The play was performed on Nov. 16 to mark the 100th anniversary in the United Kingdom of some women gaining the right to vote.
The other two monologues in the play Magda, Jo, Isabella are written by Prof. Saviana Stanescu, performing and media arts and Prof. Aoise Stratford, theatre arts, Ithaca College. The play premiered in Ithaca in May 2017.
Samuel Buggeln of The Cherry, an Ithaca artists’ collective, told The Sun in an email that she reached out to Van Clief-Stefanon to write the monologue. For the professor, the play presented the opportunity to highlight the life of African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.
“It felt like a perfect opportunity to write about Sojourner Truth which I’d wanted to do since having been asked previously in Ithaca to perform the ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech, having resisted doing that,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. “I did not want to perform that popular white-washed version of this complex radical black woman who travelled and lectured on Civil Rights and women’s suffrage.”
Van Clief-Stefanon’s monologue follows “Isabella’s” retreat to a monastery in Esopus, New York, to “clear her mind” before the 2016 presidential election. While at the monastery, Isabella encounters the voice of Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree).
“I began by thinking about voice: wondering what Sojourner might have sounded like, what her accent, for example, would have been like given that she spoke only Dutch until she was around 8 years old,” Van Clief-Stefanon said.
Sojourner Truth served as inspiration to her monologue because she was a, “radical Pentecostal Christian women” that broke away from suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Van Clief-Stefanon said.
According to PBS, in addition to breaking away from the white suffragists, Sojourner Truth sued the Ulster County grand jury because her child was sold illegally. She become the first woman to win a lawsuit in the United States and later sued a newspaper for slander, the newspaper having called her a “witch.”
“The contemporary Isabella in my piece obsesses on the idea of a palinode: a retraction or recanting (of what she has said previously with regards to the election) that will allow her a new vision,” Van Clief-Stefanon said.
Van Clief-Stefanon attended the Caven Canem retreat in Esopus in 1998, where she got inspiration for her monologue from the place’s historical ties to Sojourner Truth and her study of poems by Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton.
The community that develops from working on a project such as producing Magda, Jo, Isabella for the National Theatre London was Van Clief-Stefanon’s favorite part in collaborating with Saviana Stanescu and Aoise Stratford.
“There are writers and directors and actors and stage managers and lighting and set designers. It’s the thing that attracts me most to theatre. It’s a conversation, a mix of voices,” Van Clief Stefanon said, adding, “It was a pleasure to meet with the people who brought the piece to life.”
Van Clief-Stefanon wants to expand Isabella into a full play and is working on a piece about the defacement of public art near her home. Through a Cornell Engaged Opportunity grant, Van-Clief-Stefanon is working with local filmmaker Sue Perlgut to document, “… student and community participation in a recent workshop for women on moving from trauma to joy.”