‘Ladysitting’ on stage 

At Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Co., the play by Penn English faculty and alumna Lorene Cary is based on her memoir about caring for her grandmother in the last of her 101 years.

Lorene Cary at Kelly Writers House.
The new play “Ladysitting” by Penn English faculty and alumna Lorene Cary is based on her 2019 memoir about caring for her grandmother in the last of her 101 years. The production is on stage at the Arden Theatre Co. in Philadelphia.  (Image: Delaney Parks)

“Nana was a force,” writes Lorene Cary about her grandmother. Such a force that Cary has written a memoir, an opera, and now a play about her life and death.

Selling out night after night at the Arden Theatre Co. in Philadelphia, “Ladysitting” opened in January and has been extended twice, from the original five to now seven weeks, scheduled through March 10. The production is based on Cary’s memoir “Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century,” published in 2019.

On Penn’s English faculty for nearly 30 years, Cary teaches creative writing. She recently spoke about creating the play during a discussion at Kelly Writers House. With her were Terrence Nolen, Arden co-founder and producing artistic director, and actor Melanye Finister, who plays the role of Lorene in the 90-minute production.

Dagmawi Woubshet, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Associate Professor of English, introduced the event. “Even as she centers on the care of her aging Nana, Lorene traverses an expansive timeline, exploring her family (and Philadelphia) history of five generations,” he said. “It’s exhilarating to see her exquisite book, and a rich family history, take new life on the Arden stage.”

Woubshet, like several Penn faculty, took his students to see the production. The class discussed both the play and the memoir, he said, "and it's been a treat to experience Lorene's work in all these different ways.”

Nolen, Lorene Cary, Finister, and Dag Woubshet speaking at Kelly Writers House.
In a discussion about the play "Ladysitting" at Penn's Kelly Writers House were (from left) Terrence Nolen of the Arden Theatre Co., playwright Lorene Cary of the School of Arts & Sciences, actor Melanye Finister in the role of Lorene, and Dagmawi Woubshet, also of Penn English. (Image: Delaney Parks)

The opening monologue, performed by Finister before the discussion, recalls Cary spending precious days at Nana’s house in New Jersey, across the bridge from her West Philadelphia home, specifically a memory of canning peaches.

“And someday, she said, I could put that into one of my little stories, which eventually of course I did,” Finister said during the monologue. “I knew I was being spoiled. God forbid Black children were spoiled. So, what happened at Nana’s stayed at Nana’s. The sun patch on the living room floor felt like Sabbath. Was that spirit? Or indulgence.”

Second memoir and second play

This semester, Cary, who earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 1978 from Penn, is teaching Writing and Politics which involves the youth-led movement she helped create, #VoteThatJawn, in 2018 to urge young people to register and vote.

After three novels, “Ladysitting” is her second memoir and her second play. Her other play, “My General Tubman” directed by Pulitzer-Prize-winner James Ijames, was staged at the Arden in early 2020. Her other memoir, “Black Ice,” about her time at St. Paul’s Boarding School in the 1970s, has been taught in colleges and high schools since 1991.

Cary writes that she started the memoir “Ladysitting” as a way to face Nana’s ghost and the memories of caring for her grandmother at home with her family in her last months: “To clear away the rage, uncover the simple grief … and to convince us both, Nana and myself, that she has left this plane. And to forgive. It has taken some doing.”

A one-act opera, Cary’s first, grew out of the memoir, with Nana’s ghost as the main character. It was the result of a residency with the American Lyrical Theater to write the libretto, paired with composer Liliya Ugay: “The Gospel According to Nana” premiered on Penn’s campus in the fall of 2019.

‘Unique piece’

One of Nana’s lines in the book and the play is, “The family is taking such good care of me I can’t die,” Cary said during the Kelly Writers House discussion. “The whole point of the memory is to talk about her getting better and then sliding back; it’s about end of life. It’s about what happens in a family. It’s about care, caretaking. It’s also asking questions about intimacy. It’s asking questions about love.”

The play “Ladysitting” is not, as Cary expected it to be, an adaptation of the memoir. “It’s its own unique piece,” she said.

Nolen asked Cary to write the play after the success of “My General Tubman,” which he said was the best-selling show in the history of the Arden’s upstairs theatre, the Arcadia Stage, attracting a “huge audience,” its run extended, until the pandemic cut it short.

It was during the pandemic that Nolen said he read the “Ladysitting” memoir, his own mother in hospice care. “It meant a very great deal to me,” he said. “So, I asked Lorene, ‘Would you be willing and interested in doing an adaptation of that?’” Once she agreed, he said, “I was aware at that time, in the midst of the pandemic, when everything was shutting down, it was the first artistic decision that we made as a company looking to the future.”

Nolen sent the memoir to the Arden’s board members “because I was just so excited by the story and what it could be as a play,” he said.

The first step for Cary was to think through how her experience could translate to the stage, which is entirely different from writing a book, she said. “The great thing about books is that it’s so interior,” she said, noting that the adaptation proved to be harder than she thought. “With a play, real people are on stage doing and talking. The interiority of mind-to-mind is exchanged for a much more communal experience that for me is a lot like secular church.”

To create her memoir on stage, Cary said she struggled with “how to characterize Nana’s relationship with her own mortality. The only way I could think to externalize it was to make it a character.”

And she did, the Angel of Life-and-Death, acting in a chorus role, like the narrative voice in her favorite play, “Henry V” by William Shakespeare. He is a character that only Nana and the audience can see and hear. “The conversation was important because it’s not about just what she’s thinking,” Cary said, “it’s all the things that make her speech fun and interesting and upsetting.”

Three stills from a performance of Lorene Cary’s “Ladysittting.”
Actors Melanye Finister (left) and real-life husband David Ingram (top image) in the roles of Lorene Cary and her late husband the Rev. Bob Smith. Finister (left image) during a monologue and with actor Trezana Beverley in the role of Nana (right image).  Images: Ashley Smith for Wide Eyed Studios

Bringing the play to life

Nolen and Jonathan Silver, Arden associate artistic director, chose potential cast members for a series of readings and workshops. From the start, Finister was the favorite for the role of Lorene. She said she had already read the memoir, “resonating personally with the experience of taking care of somebody as they were kind of falling apart and what that entailed.”

When Finister read the play aloud, it was with her real-life husband, actor David Ingram, reading the role of the Rev. Bob Smith, Cary’s husband. It is the first time the two actors have been in a play together in 27 years, choosing to take turns while their now-adult children were growing up.

“There was so much about it that was just easy because, I don’t know, it just felt familiar,” Finister said. “And I immediately loved that character of Life-and-Death, and the notion that this is somebody who walks with us all the time and we choose not to see.”

Cary said creating the role of her husband, Bob, who died in January 2021, was one of her most formidable challenges. “It was shocking to me how hard it was to write about my husband after he had died,” she said.

Other cast members include Tony-award winner Trezana Beverley as Nana, Monet Debose as Cary’s daughter Zoë, who was a young teenager when Nana lived at their house, and Brian Anthony Wilson as the angel.

The final version of the play emerged from a collaboration among Cary and the director, Zuhairah McGill, Nolen, and the actors, with scenes and characters gained and lost along the way. “The beginning of success comes when brilliant actors start to ‘play’: trying a line a different way or with a different movement,” Cary said.

The partnership with Finister was especially important in creating the role of herself, Cary said. “This person is a co-developer. You’re all working on this together, and I can think about it. So, I go back, and I think about this scene, and I see you (Finister) in it, and that lets me do things that I couldn’t do otherwise,” said Cary.

“Once I see the director’s vision, once I see an actor interpreting the character, then it stops being me. That’s really how I can think about the memoir as a play and stop feeling like I’m walking around not only with no clothes on but no skin.”

Finister described each 90-minute performance in the role of Lorene as a “journey.” Scene after scene, she said, “you’re pulled along, and you live a life every night on stage. You live this journey, and it’ll be different a little bit each night. Sometimes I run smack into the difficulty and the heartbreak of it.”

But the play also invokes laughter. “What I tried to do was have enough lightness, enough of the fun of living,” Cary said. “You can’t see what you’ve lost unless you’re enjoying what you have, right?”

And what is Cary looking forward to next? She is teaching her Writing Politics course again in the fall, during the presidential election: She first taught the course in the fall of 2020 during the last one. She is workshopping a new libretto this month for the Portland Opera Company in Oregon about the Fisk Jubilee singers. And she is continuing in her relatively new pursuit as a playwright, in the role as “master storyteller” for the Arden.

“I am late to the party with writing for performance, in terms of my own mortality and morbidity. But I’m going to write as much as I can while I can still put one word in front of the other and make them walk down the street,” Cary said. “We’ll see.”

Nolen, Lorene Cary, and Finister speaking with each other at Kelly Writers House.
Lorene Cary (center) with actor Melanye Finister (right) and the Arden's Terry Nolen (left) at the Kelly Writers House.  Image: Delaney Parks