Illustration by Elizabeth Montero

Lorene Cary’s Ladysitting plumbs a granddaughter’s final act of love.

By Julia M. Klein

You might say that death has been stalking Lorene Cary C’78 G’78—a novelist, memoirist, playwright, and senior lecturer in Penn’s Department of English. Cary’s husband, an Episcopal priest, died of a brain bleed in January 2021. Seven months later, Cary was diagnosed with breast cancer, then treated successfully with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. In January 2023, her mother died.

Death, in various guises, is now a character in Cary’s new play, a dramatic distillation of her 2019 memoir Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century. Directed by Zuhairah McGill, it premieres at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company from January 18 to March 10.

The memoir and play both deal with the emotional and physical challenges Cary faced in caring for her 100-year-old paternal grandmother, as well as Nana’s own struggle with mortality. “I needed to make visible the spiritual, emotional task that Nana had, which was that she was going to die,” Cary says. Imagining Death as a metaphorical or supernatural presence was not a huge leap for Cary. Her husband, Bob, reminded her weeks before his passing that experiencing the “paranormal” always made her writing come alive.

The Arden also commissioned and, in early 2020, premiered Cary’s first play, My General Tubman, a fantasia featuring a time-traveling version of the abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman [“Her General Tubman,” Mar|Apr 2020]. It elicited respectful reviews and, according to the Arden’s producing artistic director, Terrence J. Nolen, an “incredibly positive” audience response.

It was then that Nolen suggested that Cary adapt her memoir, which he had read and admired. (Cary had already penned a short opera libretto, The Gospel According to Nana.) Nolen says he was attracted to Cary’s multigenerational tale of a Black family, as well as the beauty of her prose and the relevance of the caregiving issue.

The titular lady of Cary’s new play clings desperately to life. Fiercely independent but increasingly frail, she has reluctantly agreed to relocate from her South Jersey home to the rectory where her granddaughter, the “Lorene” character, lives. With help from one of her daughters, Zoë, and her husband, as well as unseen aides, Lorene faces the mounting burdens of caregiving.

Ladysitting is about what Cary calls the “M&M years,” for mortality and morbidity. And not just Nana’s. “I can live fully, I can find joy, I can do my kundalini yoga and stay as strong as possible, but I cannot pretend that that’s not where I’m going,” the author says. “There’s a cliff, and I’m going to go over it.”

The play touches on the limits of love and obligation, and how hard it can be to disentangle the two. And it illuminates the idiosyncratic personality at the story’s center, who ran a real-estate business until she reached the century mark and also provided a loving, safe haven for Cary during her childhood.

On Cary’s right forearm a splashy green tattoo declares: “Love is Strong as Death,” a quotation from the biblical “Song of Solomon.” She had the design, by Philadelphia-born graffiti artist Distort, inked to reward herself for finishing the memoir—and to commemorate her “body and soul” acceptance of that sentiment.

Cary burst onto the literary scene with the 1991 memoir Black Ice, about her adjustment to an elite New England prep school. She has since written three novels (The Price of a Child, Pride, and If Sons, Then Heirs) and a history volume for younger readers (Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad). She is working on another opera, Jubilee, commissioned by the Portland Opera, with the composer Damien Geter.  

The first version of Ladysitting that Cary showed Nolen, in the summer of 2021, had two acts and 16 characters. “It was ridiculous,” she says. “I was making the book into a play, as opposed to finding a play in the story.”

As Cary tells it, Nolen suggested that staging such an ambitious work would be financially infeasible in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Nolen, however, remembers his primary concern as artistic: “I wanted to spend more time with Nana and Lorene. All of the characters were interesting but were taking up the time I wanted with the main characters.”

“When you bring something down, you often do concentrate it,” Cary says. The play (as of late October) had tightened to a runtime of 90 minutes without intermission, with just five characters: Nana, Lorene, Bob, Zoë, and Death. “The thesis has to do with love and integrity,” Cary says. The character that is her stand-in questions her love for Nana, and wonders whether only duty remains.  

“The [dramatic] arc,” says Cary, “is the two of them getting pushed and pushed to their emotional limits,” despite the support of family and other caregivers, sufficient means, and Nana’s lack of chronic physical illness or dementia. Her age-related needs were challenge enough. “We were all pushed to the edge of our capacity to work, to care, and to provide,” Cary says. The question Ladysitting asks is: “When you get to the end, what do you do?”

Cary has found the playwriting process, still relatively new to her, different from other forms of writing. “I like books because you do it all by yourself. I don’t want anybody in my process,” she says. By contrast, “one of the reasons for all the [script] drafts is that I am inviting people”—including Nolen, director McGill, and Arden associate artistic director Jonathan Silver—“into that process. They say, ‘This didn’t work for me.’ I’m trying to understand that and revise.”

“My whole adult life,” Cary says, she has aimed “to tell Black stories that do not require slipping into the gutter ball of minstrelsy or of trauma porn that America wants.” Over the years, she says, many editors have been more interested in stories involving Black people fighting amongst themselves or “just crumpling and falling apart under the pressure of American oppression.”

Her literary goal is to reclaim other kinds of stories and characters. “These old, complicated Black lives matter,” Cary has written about Nana and Ladysitting. She adds: “I want them precious, I want them shining, I want them in our hearts.”   

Julia M. Klein is a frequent Gazette contributor.

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