Friday, February 27, 2015

Still editing!

                                              ACT I  Scene 5

As lights shift Lorraine sings as she enters: We Shall Overcome tying on a small apron. She may be folding napkins or setting the table throughout. She goes through a bit of the song then stops. Jimmy sits at his typewriter reading a page from her letter.


        (Singing) Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day. 
        The song seems somewhat incongruous with the act of setting a table
         but believe me, to a woman, nothing is incongruous.  You and I sang
         that song quite a bit, Jimmy.  We all used to sing then. As if the singing
         might wipe the fear and bitterness off of peoples faces.But, there you are  
        Three centuries of hatred need a little more than a four minute melody. 
        You are on the road so much! I missed singing with you at the memorial...
        the anniversary of Emmett Till's murder.       
         Most of the Negroes...the black the little storefront were so choked
         with sorrow, Jimmy, they couldn't get the words out.  I was choked with irony.
         How closely tied are sex and blackness in this country?  A boy, no more than
         15 years old, beaten mercilessly and killed--by grown white men--because he's
         perceived to be a threat to white womanhood.
          It is 1956, for Gawd sake! How can Ior youor Richard write a word
          and hope it to have a single shred of meaning? Its as if our dark skin is a
          symbol of rampaging desire roaring in their ears! Whatever words Emmett
          Till may or may not have said to that white girl--that store clerk in Money,
          Mississippi--are irrelevant.  Emmett Till had no vice at all.  His skin did all the talking.
Lights down on Lorraine

Thursday, November 6, 2014


One of the dangers of being a writer is reading and re-reading your own work so much you have no perspective at all.  I often tell students that if there's a particular word or phrase that seems to stand out or ring for you, that usually means it's really bad!  If you re-read often enough nothing seems to stand out.  Sometimes the work feels so familiar you can't make a judgment about it at all.

That said when writing a play the number of drafts to be written and re-written can be dizzying!  Which is one reason it's great to work with a dramaturge as I did for several years with old friend and director, Harry Waters Jr. on Waiting for Giovanni.  An outside voice can point out things my eye can't see any more.  

That invisibility is really distressing when you're trying to promote a play that's already been staged locally.  I frequently go back to the script to package it up, refine the description and send out to yet one more theatre that will probably stick it on a stack that is 4 feet high and looms over an  overworked/underpaid play development director. 

It's then that despair can creep in: are those words still sharp, meaningful, funny? Was the audience really laughing with it or at it?  Do those characters jump off the page or merely languish?  Has the impact seeped out of the script down into the floorboards leaving a stack of bound boring pages?  Which is worse: a play development staffer being bored by the script or puzzled?

With Waiting for Giovanni I have the benefit of going back to the video.  Even though video documentation of plays is usually flat and unable to convey the energy of live performance sometimes it is close.  I recently viewed one of the monologues that New Conservatory Theatre posted on YouTube (it's kind of like Googling yourself but less embarrassing) and got the treat of  revisiting the stellar performances of Wm. Hunter as Jimmie and Desiree Rogers as Lorraine.  It's worth a look if only to see what actors can really do!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Still Waiting

I'm just finishing up a residency at Hedgebrook retreat for women writers where I've been working on my new play about Alberta Hunter.  Tucked away in a (practically vine-covered) cottage for two weeks I was able to re-examine the complex and somewhat hidden life of the enduring singer/composer in ways that were very different from working on the Baldwin play.
Baldwin had such a distinct voice, had written so much and was written about so much once I started reading he took up residence in my head.  With Hunter I'm re-reading the one biography about her, mining it for glimpses of the person she was behind the quips and the curtain she drew across her private live.

I'm listening to her music, of course, but that too is somewhat of a curtain around who she was and what she felt.  I glean small facts...her support of the NAACP and love of risqué songs despite her ladylike pose (which I knew from seeing her perform at the Cookery in NYC).  But the residency has helped me dare to imagine some amalgamation of Alberta that isn't in her biography or in her songs.  I turned a corner here and am very grateful I had the opportunity to work in this particular obligations but writing for two weeks straight!

As it comes to an end I find myself returning home and eager to jump back into some strategies for finding another home for Waiting for Giovanni.  I know how hard it is to find a producer for a play, I worked in theatre in NYC for years.  But I refuse to believe that W4G will just sit on a shelf and gather dust.  Baldwin is beginning to re-enter people's consciousness across the country so it's to me to find ways to get the play to enter also.

Rejections should not hold me back, all the best playwrights have rejections!  Having had this chance to move Alberta closer to life gives me the energy to start the search again for a theatre that wants to give W4G a home!  Onward and upward!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Baldwin - Baraka

The two names are inextricably linked by time and culture and their relationship is all the more evident now that both, as they say in some communities, have passed.  The passing of Baldwin in 1987 marked by the encomiums of Baraka were what led me to the core of my play, Waiting for Giovanni.  It seems right to revisit that moment now that Baraka, too, has joined the ancestors.

While Baldwin was memorialized at a service in Manhattan's Cathedral of St John Divine, I stood outside with many public mourners watching the family and famous arrive; all of us waiting to let go of him although we didn't want to.  Even though Baldwin resided on the other side of the world most of the time we still thought of him as always near—in Harlem or on the Upper West Side or in the West Village.  The streets reflected his words and his spirit back to us always; whether we were writers or nurses, or shoe shine men.  He was under our skin like that polish the brothers can never seem to get off their hands.

But years later when I watched a documentary that showed the service I was incensed that people like Baraka were given the privilege of praising him in death when in life Baldwin had been so despised publicly by people like him.  Baldwin's success in white literary circles, his open homosexuality, and his international appeal all condemned him to the dreaded categories: effete and Negro.  The young Turks like Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, later Ishmael Reed and others seemed to thrive on their disdain for women and for gay people both in print and in public.

Maybe it was just a generational thing--each new wave of writer/activists feeling more progressive and cutting edge than the previous so the old must make way for the new.  I understand that feeling from both the perspectives of the new and of the old.  However with Baraka it's more difficult to not be angry with him for several reasons.

He was a wonderful organizer who tried to save Newark, New Jersey by sheer force of will.  He brought hope to a small, economically and spiritually decimated city that had been betrayed by everyone--Black and white.  His dogged determination to turn the city around was heroic.  I wanted his commitment to social justice to be more universal.

His writing, when not marred by dogmatism, sexism and anti-Semitism (that latter he clumsily tried to recant later in life), could be brilliant.  His poem, 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,' remains one of the most powerful in the English language. His book, “Blues People,” changed the way African Americans looked at music and each other.  I don't like to use accusatory 'ism' and 'phobia' words because I understand these political perspectives often exist within otherwise socially conscious people, especially of certain generations.  I too will undoubtedly be accused of an 'ism' or 'phobia' at some point as I grow older no matter how hard I try to keep up.

However with Baraka it was especially painful to see him pass up his teachable moments.  He ignored the power he had to reconcile Blackness and sexuality for the youth that followed him even when he knew personally how important it was.  The tragic murder of Baraka's lesbian daughter and her lover by a wife batterer in 2003 was preceded 20 years earlier by the murder of his sister Kimako, also a lover of women.

Kimako owned a shop in Harlem; it was the first place I bought a piece of African clothing.  She was beautiful, sensual, and astute; a woman who knew her artifacts, her fabric and her business.  I never went to the shop without encountering another writer or other artists who weren't beguiled by her.  Her murder, by an acquaintance she'd been trying to help get on his feet, sent an entire community of women into mourning.  And so too her brother.

But that connection never seemed to lead Baraka to the next step in understanding the underlying connection between all of our struggles for dignity.  It never led him, as far as I know, to stepping up to embrace that dignity publicly so that the next generation of young Turks might shed their reflexive macho sexism and homophobia.

Many times I saw Baraka fail to do a right thing; be arrested for hitting his wife; not pay attention at public readings to younger female writers; or worse dis them for departing from his gospel. So it will always be a complicated mourning for his passing. His genius will stand in the writing he leaves behind, but so too must his flaws.

His wife, Amina Baraka, did something he never could.  She attended the Hunter College (NYC) symposium that honored the life of Black, lesbian poet, Audre Lorde on the anniversary of her passing.  There Amina read a tribute to her murdered daughter, retelling the painful story to the audience and making the connections that her husband did not.  She understood Audre's proclamation: "Your silence will not save you" as a personal call to testify.  Her tears were the spiritual river that flowed between us, her daughter and Audre creating the possibility of healing.

Baldwin and Baraka came to some nominal rapprochement later in life.  Maybe as the young Turks age they can see themselves more clearly in the ones who've gone before.  In “Waiting for Giovanni” my character Jimmy asks about the young, Black militants who dismiss him:

 “…have their senses been perverted by the way their manhood was
brutalized:  Slavery, Jim Crow, night shift jobs.  But haven’t I too been
beside them?”

The answer, of course, is yes.  Jimmy had been there, in the struggle.  But it’s sometimes difficult to embrace a brother that the culture has insisted is ‘the other.’  It can even be difficult for the brother to embrace himself. 

Still it was the disapproval of people like Baraka which might have intimidated Baldwin into not publishing "Giovanni's Room."  That would have been a literary and a personal tragedy.
Fortunately Baldwin was not the weak piece of fluff Baraka and the others may have thought a homosexual to be.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

50 years and counting

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the historic "I Have a Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I, of course, remember watching the event on television and being amazed, along with everyone else, that so many people showed up to cover the National Mall.  I loved seeing people with their feet in the huge reflecting pool! There was no Twitter, Facebook or email to get the word out, yet everyone knew.  The national press wasn't informing us it was taking place; they were warning us about the probable violence!

For organizers, celebrities, and working folk the event was meant to serve notice on the JFK White House that people wanted human rights and JOBS.  Fifty years later we're still having the same conversation.

Watching the commemorative march on television last week there were some notable differences from the years before.  At the 25th Anniversary celebration activists had to wrestle with organizers to have lesbian poet/activist Audre Lorde invited to speak from the stage.  Internationally known and the poet laureate of the state of New York when she died in 1992, Audre's advocates had to battle for for the organizers to recognize a lesbian of color as a legitimate spokesperson for human rights.  Not surprising since the only woman to speak from the stage at the original March was singer and WWII hero Josephine Baker! The stalwart women who'd been working in the deep south for years like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker were not highlighted at all.  This year Myrlie Evers Williams was just the beginning of the women who spoke.

This year's celebration also displayed another gratifying change: Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March was not totally ignored.  Years ago when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, Rustin was all but invisible among the heroes being honored.  Even though A. Phillip Randolph had insisted on his value other March organizers didn't know if they could work with a 'homosexual'!  My favorite Randolph quote is when someone challenged him about working with Rustin, a known homosexual: , “Well, well, if Bayard, a homosexual, is that talented—and I know the work he does for me—maybe I should be looking for somebody else homosexual who could be so useful."

This year MSNBC even had a panel of Black queer people to talk about the meaning of the March to the Gay movement!  And Bayard Rustin was quoted as an out gay man by many speakers.  This doesn't mean everything has been healed between the Black and the Gay movements, only that there's been some growth!  James Baldwin would have been proud to be on that stage this year, to be able to be his full self and not have to weigh which was more important--being black or being gay.

Emory University is holding a conference this spring to explore some of the ways the movements are different or similar.  It will be a valuable time we can carry on the conversation and help rid the world of the idea that people of color have to choose one aspect of themselves and ignore all others! 

Whose Beloved Community takes place at Emory March 27-29, 2014.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


I know I'm being totally saccharine but I was terribly sad when I watched the final episode of the TV series, SMASH.  Of course, the two-year run was full of ridiculous, unlikely things about play production...not the part about the director sleeping with his leading ladies, though.  But there was something else there that really touched me.

Despite the drama of backstabbing, envy and hard edged economic realities any production faces, (can we actually get more financial support for theatre from the Mob?) especially when it hopes to go to Broadway, SMASH was also able to embody the sparks of creativity that make a play, the team work it takes to realize a dream and the relentless hard work theatre demands.  It's especially heart rending when you understand that for each play that does 'make it,' (even if you define making it as only getting a critical review published in the paper. And I remember when plays were reviewed on the TV news!) there are hundreds more that may make it to one production only and thousands more which never make it that far.

It's especially difficult when you see that theatres are facing such economic challenges they often fall back on familiar writers, familiar plays to try and ensure they have full houses.  I was a stage manager in New York City's Off and Off Off Broadway for a decade so know how companies make those ends meet.  I once worked a show in the West Village where I called the light cues, sewed the costumes, found all the props and took phone reservations for a sum not even high enough to call a salary! I was like a theatrical Swiss Army knife. But the passion for the play and for each other brought us all back every day and night.  Live theatre is like nothing else in the arts.

I'm also feeling nostalgic about SMASH, I guess, because I've been sending out the script to "Waiting for Giovanni" in hopes of finding a new venue and it feels suddenly like a futile exercise.  Too many playwrights, too few slots!  I also used to read scripts for the Public Theatre in NYC and really really do know how many playwrights there are!  And combine that with the fact that I'm NOT in NYC which makes playwrights practically invisible, I wonder less and less why playwrights have a reputation for being drinkers--numbing the pain of invisibility!

The experience of working on the production of  W4G at New Conservatory Theatre Center was such an amazing example of team work overcoming economic and other obstacles I have to keep carrying the experience with me as I crank out the inquiry letters, synopses and scripts to anonymous literary departments at theatres across the country.  The memory of that team..actors, crew, staff...makes me keep going because they thought the play was worth it so I have to too. 

SMASH did a wonderful rendition of the Carrie Underwood song, 'Crazy Dreams,' that I loved. The words help as much as the picture of my W4G cast: 

'Hello you long shots/You dark horse runners/Hairbrush singers, dashboard drummers/Hello you wild magnolias/Just waiting to bloom.../...even crazy dreams come true...


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Last year was the centennial of the birth of civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin.  He was the man who brought Gandhi’s notion of non-violence to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the architect of the historic March on Washington in 1963.  This year will see a number of celebrations of his life and because it’s 2013 not 1963 he can be celebrated, in addition, as a pacifist and a gay man. 

I’m working with a group of scholars at Emory University to look at the convergences and divergences between the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Gay (or LGBT, if you will) Movement.  We’re planning a conference at Emory in 2014 and to that end I’ve been reading a lot about African American activists who straddle both identities.  People such as Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin were aware that they saw more than one thing when they looked in a mirror.  It’s exciting to finally have a discussion out loud about this idea of connection and begin to dispel the hard-held belief that somehow being African American is a universe away from being gay.

And it’s lovely to examine the life of Bayard Rustin who was such an inspiration to James Baldwin.  See “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin” (Cleis Books) edited by Donald Weise and Devon Carbado (one of my confreres on the Emory project) or the documentary film, “Brother Outsider (”

Rustin was one of the leaders in Dr. King’s inner circle with whom Baldwin felt most comfortable.  He didn’t experience the disapproval from Rustin for his queerness or for the queerness in his fiction.  They were not of the same generation (Rustin was born in 1912 and Baldwin in 1924) but they were both from generations for whom the concept of a Gay Movement was almost impossible to imagine.  Being Gay meant being quiet about it, so while neither was in the closet they couldn’t imagine carrying a banner.

For an African American, who watched friends and relatives being raped, lynched, denied the right to vote or go into stores; who saw them being attached by police dogs and fire hoses, nothing seemed equally as important as the fight to stop these atrocities.  There seemed no parallel.  Yet, of course, there are parallels in the virulence of the fear people have for both groups. 

And to some degree the consistent effort to remain hidden had kept attacks against gay people from the public eye.  And when an indignity was revealed—such as being dragged from a public drinking establishment—too many people, especially Blacks trying to achieve middle class respectability, thought it was only what they deserved.  Everyone was so afraid of discussion of sexuality there could only be shame not pride.

But Baldwin frequently defended Rustin when other Black politicians and activists attacked him.  Rustin was what we used to call ‘flamboyant,’ he carried an ornamental walking stick  and was once arrested for having public sex.  That could have ended his activist career.  But he stood proud; and he and Baldwin stood together as “bastard black queers,’ to quote Rustin.

When doing research on “Waiting for Giovanni” one of the most moving moments was reading about Baldwin’s understandable trepidations about going south where Freedom Riders had been bombed and other activists had been murdered.  I came across a wonderful photo of Baldwin looking youthful and intense standing beside the imperial Rustin.  The photo captures a snapshot of the dynamism of a movement as well as the deliberately obscured participation of Black gay people in the Civil rights Movement of the 1960s.

My hope is that the play, “Waiting for Giovanni” and the upcoming celebrations of Rustin’s life, as well as the Emory Conference, entitled Whose Beloved Community (more info to come), will ignite people’s curiosity enough so they learn more and no longer accept the half-truths of history but insist on knowing how we got as far as we have.  We need to know these things if we expect to go any further.