Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Of the I sing...

"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." James Baldwin

I read that quote when I was much younger and it really framed how I think of political activity.  Coming of age during the Viet Nam war, I heard the phrase "Love it or leave it" continuously from conservatives who felt patriotism was only revealed by how fast you could raise a flag.  Instead Baldwin's words reinforced what I learned in civics classes...remember those!   Our country is only as good as the work we--we individuals and as groups--put into it.

The Civil Rights Movement was successful, in part, because of the sit-ins it staged to grab the public attention.  Watching an elderly woman be pepper sprayed by anti-Occupy Movement authorities in 2011 is just as shocking as seeing Black marchers set upon by police dogs in the 1960s.

The Occupy Movement has reminded us of our responsibility to pay attention and act.  Whether you like the methods, feel threatened by their appearance on your doorstep, worry about the break down of the social contract (which has already been broken, by the way, by banks and government regulators), or simply feel uneasy because there have been no ready-made demands...that is not what is most important.  In fact feeling uncomfortable is one of the first ways we can tell change is happening.

What is significant is that enough people from a broad spectrum of communities and interests have actually acted on their social concerns and are trying to get officials to think about what happens to people when profits are the sole basis for decision making.  Not all of us are going to grab our gear and go sit in a public plaza or a tree...I need a little more help getting up from a cement bed than I used to...but there are ways to help make the process work.  I ask myself: What would Jimmy do?  Maybe start by asking questions about the ideas rather than simply stating your annoyance. Maybe ask what is the historical context for such dissatisfaction.  Or just ask what do people need who are out there?  Think about it...ask your local OM folks.  The 99% are not without resources. 

When we criticize our country we're showing our faith in its ability to grow and mature.  No one would say one shouldn't try to correct the table manners of children, or not teach them to read or how to cross the street.  This is a young country and it needs all the help it can get. Any positive attention (large or small) we give to the dilemma of people vs profits will create more positive energy.  Can't hurt.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Poet's Heart

James Baldwin was inducted into the Poets Corner this week, only the 44th writer so honored in the space at Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (NYC).  Fitting as this was also the site of his memorial service which spilled out into the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1987.

I remember standing outside with hundreds of others, milling around straining to hear any small thing, watching the notables who entered and being furious at the welcome accorded those who'd been so rude to Baldwin because he was gay and therefor 'unworthy' of carrying the torch for Black civil rights.  But nevertheless it was thrilling to know that Baldwin was so memorialized in that place...much as Black lesbian poet laureate Audre Lorde was less than a decade later.

Although Baldwin wrote only one book of poetry, JIMMY'S BLUES, the truth is that most of his work was poetry.  His heart was infused with the metaphor and magic of poetry; his view of humankind was similarly imbued with a confidence that only a poet can have...that is a belief in the power of what is not there.  What is not on the page is part of what makes poetry brilliant.  Baldwin believed in the things that human being had not yet achieved.  

Baldwin had belief, despite his unblinking eye, and complex understanding of human frailty and our capacity for evil.  The spaces between the words that define who we are were quite clear to him and are what kept him from bitterness and what kept him writing.

His poet's heart made life worth living...for all of us.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

You dare not disobey!

Following the end of the production I collapsed in a heap of both physical and emotional exhaustion.  It was as if I had been up on stage every night myself rather than simply sitting in the audience.  But taking in the performances and thinking and feeling through what each actor was doing did engage me more than anything else in my life. 

I'm not sure how the actors move from one intense experience like this on to the next.  They are all younger but still it amazes me.  I'm looking forward to seeing the next shows they do.  Fred Pitts (Richard), Chris Nelson (William) and William Giammona (Luc) are each in upcoming productions.  Lonnie Haley (David) is doing a piece in the Fringe Festival and still performing as Mercedes Monroe at The Look Out!  Liam Hughes (Giovanni) is in London studying.

Wm Hunter (Jimmy) just performed one of the monologues for a group in the East Bay, Desiree Rogers (Lorraine) recorded some new music with her band. Check them all out on Facebook!

I also posted some pictures from the production on my FB page.

Today I'm going to Stanford to talk to a class studying Black women playwrights and am using the experience to launch me into the rewrites.  Here's Lorraine's final monolgue which I have to keep in mind as a cut and paste and start to look out to the world to see who wants to embrace my little baby.  I dare not disobey!

ACT II Scene 8

“When the mystery is too overwhelming, you dare not disobey.”
Remember that from 'The Little Prince'? You were saying exactly this
with Luc and in the new book.

The mystery of desire draws you to both Luc and to this novel. 

Jimmy, we each suck our words from the breath the dead leave behind;
don’t lose sight of that.  Emmett Till’s bones will long be dust before
anyone understands how we need to speak of love.

If we don’t start listening to each other Armageddon might come
quietly like a whisper of gossip, weakening us until we no longer
believe in each other.

And if things are not working out with you and Luc I am so sorry. 
I have to believe there will be other loves. But books, true books do
not pull up to our stoops in taxi cabs!

It’s the beginning of a new world, Jimmy.  Damn the critics!

Lights down on Lorraine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A contest for cast and those who saw the play...

Okay, what word was totally out of place in the previous post but is totally relevant to the play!  Was it a Freudian slip?  A typographical error?  Or a secret code between us?  You tell me!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Maybe everything lasts...

Tonight was the final performance in this run of "Waiting for Giovanni" at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. It was a bitter sweet afternoon to watch the 24th show and see how each of the actors had settled into their roles, to remember all of the paths we took, thinking about who James Baldwin really might have been,who his literary colleagues were and what their legacy to us is.
The humanity that Baldwin believed in is the humanity that the actors of wildly varied backgrounds bring to a theatre project. They come together, read material that may or may not have immediate meaning for them and the. They study,rehearse, open themselves, find new ways, learn new things and dredge up old. All in service to words some one else wrote.
I missed only three rehearsals in the seven weeks of rehearsal and did not miss any of the performances

Yes I am obsessed with listening to my own words...of course...that's why so many people go to therapy...just kidding. But mostly it was because I was mesmerized by the actors and the team they created back stage and on stage. Each night they inhabited the characters and mad the ideas about humanity and love that James Baldwin preached about come alive.

Now this phase of the W4G project is complete I will take the vision of this production back to my computer, do a little nip & tuck to make it tighter and honor Baldwin and the cast who helped brought him to the stage and back into the minds of many who' forgotten what a genius he was. I'll start bugging my collaborator, Harry Waters Jr again to help me thong my way through re-writes then we' star looking for another theatre to bring it alive again.
Several characters say in W4G: "Nothing lasts forever."
Giovanni's response is: "Maybe everything lasts. We just can't be around to see it."

I plan for W4G to last forever and I want a lot of us to be around to see it again more than once. Next week I'll post some excerpts from the script as I'm editing and keep you up on the news about where the show might go next.

Monday, September 5, 2011

“Books. Best weapons in the world. Arm yourself!” Dr. Who

Well, we opened the show on time which is evidenced by the absence of new blogs recently here at W4G!  So I guess that’s the good news….and most of the news is good so far.

Remember those old movies where the writer or director of a new play refused to come inside the theatre, but instead paced outside the box office smoking and mumbling nervously to (always) himself?  Until now I thought that was an overblown depiction of artist anxiety…until now.  On opening night, even after going to every rehearsal and all the preview performances I was more nervous than I’ve been since I heard the FBI ringing my door bell in 1972 (that’s another story). 

I focused my energy on what to wear (1950s cocktail dress) and how I might be helpful to the cast (deliver food and stay out of the way).  But internally I realized what a huge leap I’d taken in trying to depict what might be happening inside one of the greatest minds in 20th century American literature.  And then to ask 7 actors to walk around naked on stage (6 metaphorically speaking and one practically) and say my words?  Suddenly I wondered if maybe I’d lost my mind; escape to the sidewalk seemed not so outlandish. Fortunately I haven’t smoked since 1988 and I had on cute but cruel shoes so couldn’t actually pace.

For the second time in this process, though, I felt I did understand what might have been going on in Baldwin’s mind.  I did know what it meant to have people think my work was not good for a political movement.  And the moment before I decided to persist with creating Black lesbian vampire stories was a yawning abyss…until it wasn’t.

Then having done the deed—to now let the world look at it, to think about it, to judge it?  That does make one question one’s sanity.

I know I still have work to do on the piece but audiences have made it clear I’m on the right track. However, one of the puzzling responses has been the reviewers’ difficulty dealing with the words.  Seems simple…I wrote a play about a writer who was extremely articulate.  Baldwin’s use of language was legendary; his circle of literary friends was almost his verbal equal. 

A play about Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry & company would naturally have more well-crafted sentences than most.  But that seemed to confound some reviewers.  It was as if being faced with an articulate Black voice…either mine or Baldwin’s it’s hard to say…the reviewer didn’t know how to respond. 

The play is not as long as a James Joyce novel…or even Henry James.  But it does contain a lot of words.  And the words are delivered extremely well by the company: Wm. Hunter, Liam Hughes, Christopher Nelson, William Giammona, Desiree Rogers, Fred Pits and Lonnie Haley.

Harry Waters Jr., with whom I collaborated and who directed the production, worked really hard to make sure the words were fully realized.  So it’s a bit disheartening to have professional wordsmiths be overwhelmed by them.  Not so much a blow to my ego but it raises a concern about the future of cultural criticism.  It makes me wonder: if a critic in a city newspaper expects to hear dialogue that is the equivalent of ‘tweets’ is this the end of civilization as we know it?

But no, I won’t be an alarmist!  The audiences have been completely engaged with the words.  And it's an audience that spans the full spectrum of San Francisco humanity. Many audience members have been so enraptured they’ve come back a second time.  At a recent post-show talk back session folks wanted to know more about the words.  Sale of Baldwin’s book in the lobby is steady, so clearly, regular people aren’t afraid of words.

I love the above quote from Dr. Who, one of my favorite TV shows, because it captures the world that Baldwin lived in and the way that most progressive activists I know live today.  We still believe that knowledge is power; and changing how we think and how we talk helps change the world.   

More updates to come!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lorraine Looks Good in a Tight Sweater

I didn’t start out to write a play with Lorraine Hansberry in it, let alone Hansberry in a tight sweater and Capri pants! My friend Harry, from my old theatre days in NYC asked me to write something about James Baldwin. Five years later we’re about to open ‘Waiting For Giovanni, ’ a two act play with a cast of seven.’

In 1957 when Baldwin was told publishing a 'gay' novel would ruin his career in literature and that Martin Luther King, Jr. would probably never invite him onto another march he wrote it anyway. Writing the piece has reminded me of the courage it sometimes takes to speak.  And who has as much courage as the actors who speak the words that bring Baldwin to life?

But soon I found I was writing a play with all men and I wondered who were the women in his world?  Lorraine Hansberry jumped right out at me. She was a contemporary and an actual friend of his—not that I couldn’t include her if she had not been since it’s a ‘dream play.’

Hansberry was the first African American woman to have a play on Broadway, “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959). (Please see the film with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands and burn any copies you can find of the Sean Combs travesty…or maybe just wipe him off the tape and keep Sanaa Lathan and Audra MacDonald). At 29, she was the youngest and only the 5th woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

She was an amazing thinker and activist who, before she died, reached out to the lesbian community. She is fabled to have died at home with her long time female lover—something that we hope will be confirmed now that her private papers have been opened up for research.

Hansberry has been a personal inspiration for me as much as Baldwin has. She too was told she was ‘writing off topic’ when her second play featured white characters. It was echoed for me in the 1990s when some people told me that writing a Black Lesbian vampire novel was a bad idea!

I admire Hansberry’s ability to look at the world through a big lens, to be able to see herself in the context of all that was around her not just the narrow life being lived just in front of her. Figuring out who we are can really be aided when we can look at others and see their effort too; that’s why people go to plays after all.

Most critical discussion of “A Raisin in the Sun” focuses on the battle between the older son and his mother over how he should spend the late father’s insurance money. Critics almost uniformly underplay the daughter’s role in the piece. She’s a great stand in for Hansberry: brash, smart, independent and ambitious. She refuses to be subject to her African boyfriend’s insistence on the ‘female’ role or her brother’s dismissal of her career aspirations. Her play also raises the issue of a woman’s right to abortion along with the other ideas few were talking about any where much less on a Broadway stage

A more intimate look at Hansberry’s life is sure to be exciting and illuminating. In the mean time her fans have subsisted on whispers and the brilliance of her writing. Putting her in my play meant I reread her work and essays about her as I constructed her dialogue. It was like getting to have long conversations with one of my heroes. Her genius did not fail.

The actress playing Lorraine, Desiree Rogers, is an amazing embodiment of Hansberry’s spirit and smarts…and she wears a sweater well!

Some rewards for writing can not be predicted.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Jimmy!

"I know that what I'm asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible." 
                                   James Baldwin b. August 2, 1924

Most of us (Negro and not) have a few moments in our histories and our lives for which this Baldwin quote is appropriate.  I dear friend and sister playwright, Marty Pottenger, sent it to me.  She teaches Maine municipal works--police officers, fire fighters, clerks--how to write, to have creative lives and keep their humanity in the face of both danger and boredom.  Her own plays/performances have highlighted the lives of construction workers and the building of the largest capital construction in New York State history, City Water Tunnel No. 3 (  She knows hard work when she sees it; so I feel touched that she keeps encouraging me and my work.

The quote comes at a perfect moment in the play production process...we're halfway between that first day and opening night!  YIKES! As I sit in the theatre seats watching rehearsal, I recognize how much of it now lands on the shoulders of the actors.
Acting has had a varied place in culture through the ages.  If someone says Sir Laurence Olivier, the ultimate in craft and class is meant to be evoked. He was Shakespearean performance royalty.  But in colonial Boston Shakespeare's plays and those hoping to act in them were chased out of town by angry mobs who thought actors were disciples of the devil.

Ironically denizens of the "wild west" loved theatre--from the bawdy to 'high falutin' opera. One of the enduring landmarks here in San Francisco is Lotta's Fountain, erected by actor, Lotta Crabtree, in gratitude to the love she felt from SF audiences.  The fountain was the prime reunion site for refugees from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire; and I think of art and safety every time I go past it on Market St.

In undergraduate school I minored in theatre and took an acting class  because the world fascinated me even back then.  When I did my first scene in the class...from Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"... the professor asked what I wanted to be. 
"A writer," I answered.
"Good," was his retort.
 And there went any vague aspiration that might have been buried inside my unformed heart. So when I work with actors I'm in perpetual amazement...they have to live in bravery constantly...anticipating rejection like that of my professor.  But when it's coming from a casting director, audiences, or  their peers it's not only hurt feelings but their livelihood.

Working with the cast of W4G lets me back into that brave world, where I haven't been since my last play, "Bones & Ash," toured the US in 1996.  As soon as we started doing readings of the play a couple of years ago I could tell immediately how much I missed that world.  The first day of sitting in a rehearsal room with almost total strangers who have little in common except their mutual passion for their art is, for me, like opening a door in a SciFi movie where a huge magical world bathed in sunlight lies on the other side. (Think 'Contact' Jodie Foster 1997.)

 In those first moments it's hard to know for sure that six weeks later the group will know a lot about each other...from allergies (peanuts we know so far) to vulnerabilities (we keep those between us).

The actors in W4G have entered through that magic door from all over the world!   Fairfield, Eureka and Redwood City, Ca, Lynchburg, Va., Germany,Connecticut, Dayton, Dundee, Scotland, Kalamazoo (or Kalabama as I'm told it's known!), Manhattan, and San Francisco.  And that's before we add in the other artists--the tech crew and house staff who all come from universes of their own as well. This is not a lavish Hollywood set so it's only the art that holds them together in the same room.

It's never as simple as that old movie where Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney decide to put on a show in the barn and a full orchestra is heard in the background.  But one week the actors are sitting around a table trying to remember each others names and the next they're helping each other with pronunciations, by the third they're sharing their favorite music.

I brought in copies of the classic book, "The Little Prince" because some themes from the book are threaded through our play. It was a wonderful moment to see the book handed around from Denver to Fairfield to Kalamazoo. These are moments that consultants are paid thousands of dollars to create in staff retreats; artists do it every time they enter a rehearsal room.  Audiences do it every time they sit in the darkened theatre.

Whatever happens with W4G after opening night, I'll never read Baldwin or Saint-Exupery again without thinking of this cast and their expectations of the impossible.  Art carries so much more than whatever the artist intended. When the ingredients are combined just so the potion does become magic and accomplishes the impossible. 

Yes, my dear friend Marty knows hard work when she sees it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Those Damned Trust Exercises

We started rehearsal last week!!!  This was a particularly interesting beginning for a (not-Broadway) production—the director (and my collaborator), Harry Waters Jr., arrived not having met two of the eight actors.  Harry teaches at Macalester College  in Minneapolis, so couldn’t be present for all the auditions.  He had to trust me and Ed Decker, the artistic director of New Conservatory Theatre.  The most comforting thing was that both Ed and I thought simultaneously: Harry is great with actors so we just need to feel we’ve got the raw material not the absolutely perfect fit…always totally imaginary anyway.

But I was anxious, despite our confidence in Harry’s exquisite ability with actors…I’d witnessed it many times over the several years we’d been doing readings of W4G and years earlier when we were both doing Off and Off-Broadway theatre together.  And it’s not a given that someone who’s also an actor himself will work well with other actors.  (I recently dropped in on the San Francisco Museum of Performance & Design to see their celebration of the 20th anniversary of the original production of Kushner’s “Angeles in America,” a play Harry had been in!)

But Ed and I had a good sense of Harry and the play, as did Lori, the casting director for the theatre.  She recommended that a friend who’s a drag artist audition; and damn if Lonnie isn’t the one for the job.  He captures every nuance Harry throws at him!  And we’ve only been at it for 5 days!

Then there’s the actor to play Giovanni, the character from Baldwin’s novel, “Giovanni’s Room.”  Harry and I have worked with several actors over the various readings, and each was completely different.  The goal is to capture the ethereal, sensual quality of a fictional character who is also determined and solid.  In the original script Giovanni had no dialogue at all…how unfair to an actor is that!  But when we did a reading in Ohio we had an amazingly intense actor whose presence begged for words. 

Now Giovanni has emotional, surreal scenes with Jimmy and the voices in Jimmy’s head.  But who can play the shadowy yet solid Giovanni.  We had a charming Giovanni when Brian Freeman directed the reading for the Afro Solo Festival a couple years ago; then a fierce, naïve, gamine Giovanni (thanks Nick!) when we did the readings at NCTC last summer and winter.  But his schedule kept him from signing on with the production.

So into the audition studio walks Liam, who so did NOT reflect the Giovanni I’d held in my imagination over the past couple of years.  Physically he’s more a Sam Shepard kind of guy, like a character in his 1964 piece “Cowboys” which I stage managed once.  But there was some quality he conveyed that both Ed & I grasped…naïve, tensile strong, seductive, bewildered, unrelenting.  We looked at each other saying: Hope Harry likes him…he’s it!

And Harry did!

When I started working in theatre in the late 1970s, directors often had the cast do those damned trust exercises.  They were like Violin Spolin run amok!  Guiding each other around a room blindfolded or my least favorite: dropping backward into the arms of someone in the company, trusting they would catch you!  I HATED THAT!  I think of myself as trusting but I always worried (like most women) I was too heavy.

This was the biggest trust exercise I’ve ever done…inviting actors into a space that someone else will take over.  It felt both practical and magical to feel like the actors gave us enough that we could trust they could do it; that we knew Harry’s work well enough to feel he would appreciate our choices and to know he would trust us enough to make that choice possible. 

Any production has to build trust and appreciation among the actors who will live in each other’s lives for the next two or three months.  Sitting around the table together for the first reading of the script I was relieved that Harry, Ed and I had that trust.  Then little by little in the five days I began to see trust peeking out from the actors.  Before they even got to the exercise where that saved each other from crashing to the floor they were listening and thinking together.

Theatre is a lot like real life in that way.  You can tell how things are going sometimes by the way people laugh with AND at each other.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

C'est vrai


These are the final words that the character Giovanni says in Baldwin’s novel.  The rest of the story is told through the voice of David, the lover who abandons him.  Giovanni says, “It’s true” in response to another character’s statement that: “Americans always fly.  They are not serious.”

The truth of the statement is more than simply about Giovanni’s faithless, ambivalent lover; it is an assessment of the American in Paris.  Or of the American colonial spirit anywhere it swoops in, churns things up then flies away leaving the colonized to piece their culture back together again, usually with disastrous results.

When I started writing “Waiting for Giovanni” I wasn’t thinking much about American colonialism; but rather about the tragic end of the innocent Giovanni who goes to the guillotine.  In the book Giovanni lashes out in a rage that is almost incomprehensible except to those who have ever been in love.  I wanted to find a way to make the love Giovanni held inside, the love that was rejected by David, come alive and have meaning.  In part I wanted to accomplish that because I can be a bit of a romantic. 

Perhaps Thelma and Louise survived the crash. 

But also because I saw Baldwin as a person full of hope.  He watched the world explode around him: children bombed, marchers broken by high pressure water, boys hung from trees.  His eyes were unblinking as he took in all of the evil ‘that men do.’ Still in his heart he seemed to believe that human beings had the capacity to be better than their initial instincts might be.  His essays were often searing indictments of the racist institutions that dominate US culture and at the same time a call to humanity to fulfill their potential.

When the curtain goes down on the final act of the play (that’s a figurative curtain since so few theatres use proscenium curtains anymore!) I want the audience to think about the struggle for love and the struggle to be righteous and want to take part in that struggle.  So the truth of how Americans can be—that is callous and exploitative—is not the only truth.  If we can imagine seeing all that occurred during Baldwin’s life and still not hate humanity we can create a new world.

Baldwin said once: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  We are those innocents, like Giovanni, who never see the full and horrible reality that surrounds us.

We’ll recycle our cans and all will be well. 

The history is more beautiful and more terrible than is spoken about.  But in order to get to the truth of who we can be we must speak about the terrible things we do as Americans (of all ethnicities) both individually and nationally.

It’s just a play, I know.  But when you start to write anything—a poem, a vampire novel, a play about one of the best minds of the 20th century—it really helps to think you can write something that will change the world.

C’est vrai

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sweet Lorraine

 Five years ago when I was gathering myself together to approach writing “Waiting for Giovanni” I only knew one thing for sure:  Lorraine Hansberry would be in the play.  I hadn’t much biographical information yet but since it was to be a ‘dream play’ I figured it was okay to create a friendship between them even if I found there was none.  (There was.)  The piece is meant to evoke an emotional crossroads not portray anyone’s biography so it seemed natural to have two of the most significant writers of the 20th century be in the same play

Last week was Lorraine Hansberry’s birthday (May 19th, the same as Malcolm X!) and it reminded me of why I wanted to include her in this piece.  Hansberry and Baldwin were both admonished to ‘mind their own business;’ that is to stick to writing about topics that directly and literally related to Blackness.

Most oppressed communities go through this. The ‘uplift literature’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries was de rigueur for the ‘Negro’ writers who were meant to show a good face for the ‘hood and gain sympathy for the Black plight.  Lesbian literature of the 1970s was often also focused on how ‘normal’ lesbians are.  Not necessarily a bad thing, certainly.  But all writers and their communities grow beyond victimhood if they grow healthy. They begin to see their victimization more than simply aimed at their small corner of humanity and can approach liberation as part of a global movement.

Hansberry was the first African American woman to be produced on Broadway (“Raisin in the Sun” 1959) which would automatically hand her the Race Torch.  Then she wrote “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which told its story through an interracial set of characters.  The cry of protest went up: “What did that story have to do with the African American Story?” 

The truth is African Americans are unique (as are all people) and African Americans are also universal (as are all people).  The stories Black writers tell are theirs no matter the topic or the characters they create to tell it.

In “W4G” my character Lorraine says:

            “We are all our own topics.  Everything I see, hear, taste, smell and feel
            comes through me and out of me.  I can lift up this skirt and piss out
            the world.”

Critics are notoriously myopic, focusing on whatever detail that strikes a chord within them and often ignoring a larger context or topic. This was what happened and continues to happen with Hansberry’s classic play, “Raisin in the Sun.” 

The piece still crackles with life and ideas more than 50 years later yet most discussions only focus on one element of the story. Walter Lee needs to claim his manhood by using his late father’s insurance money to open a liquor store while his widowed mother insists the family escape the ghetto and use the funds to buy a little house in an all white neighborhood.  That is a formidable struggle but not the only one. 

Hansberry also presented us with other struggles:  Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, is pregnant with a second child while they live in the crowded poverty of his mother’s tenement.  When she broaches the idea of an abortion she’s met with stony religious rebuke from her mother-in-law but now answers to the question of who has control over her body.  Walter
Lee’s sister, Beneatha, wants to use part of the money to go to medical school.  Beneatha has to suffer the condescension of not just her brother but also of her enthusiastic African beau who thinks women were invented to be wives. 

So many academics and critics follow the same path laid down by the dominant culture the emotional core of writers’ work can be totally buried under archaic interests like how women must stay in a specific role or that there are no gay people in a community.  Hansberry and Baldwin resisted that worn path as much as they could.  When Hansberry wrote to the lesbian journal The Ladder in 1957 she was clearly searching for places to feel free to speak her mind…her full mind not just the Black playwright who gets to be a ‘first’ mind.  She wrote:

…”moral conclusions-based on acceptance of a social moral superstructure
which has never admitted to the equality of women [and] is therefore immoral

A rebellious spirit and great vision pushed Baldwin and Hansberry to write what was in their hearts. Hansberry didn’t live along enough to further express her love for women (as far as we know…but more information is sure to come). Baldwin himself was ever the rebel that made it possible for him to state that he didn’t want to have to belong to a club to be himself.  However, he lived his life, ultimately, in line with the belief that:

"Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we
cannot live within."

In reaching out to the first national lesbian magazine Sweet Lorraine, as James called her, allied herself with a community which was barely on the radar screen for the Civil Rights Movement of that period.  At least not out loud.  At least not yet.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trading your life for a sandwich

 This month we're commemorating the 50 anniversary of the Freedom Rides which helped desegregate the south.  The PBS program, American Experience, is showing a documentary about the Freedom Rides also in May:

Oprah, on May 4th, will have 150 folks who traveled around the southern states to bring the spot light to the insanity of Jim Crow laws which forbid blacks and whites from eating together publicly.
That makes sense but there's something oddly surreal about the colored queen of daytime TV with all of her international star power sitting down with those who risked their lives when they sat down at segregated lunch counters in the summer of 1961. I'm happy that finally their service to the civil rights movement is being celebrated.  Mostly they were young college students or working people who committed themselves to nonviolence in the face of direct verbal and physical abuse. 

And there was nowhere to turn if you were being beaten or spat on at a lunch counter. The white southern sheriffs were not going to come to the aid of any civil rights activist—black or white.

As a teenager I watched the heroics of the demonstrators on the evening news every night and, was moved to tears.  I was also inspired to participate in demonstrations in my own home town, Boston, often more subtly but just as strictly segregated. 

James Baldwin was deeply imbedded in the Civil Rights Movement of that time, talking with leaders regularly, gauging when his prestigious presence would be a valuable element to the team strategy. His participation was intellectual as well as physical.  His essays helped frame the discussion of racial politics for the entire country.

It was a heady time when we all saw the world changing around us faster than it ever had before.  Every day held hope that equality was just up the road if we kept marching.  But there is always a price to pay for commitment.  The files that the FBI kept on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were spiteful attempts to prove he was at the very least a Communist. If the US government had spent as much time protecting the rights of African Americans as it did peeking through the curtains of black leaders, desegregation might have been less bloody and certainly more speedy.

James Baldwin was also, like most activists, the object of FBI surveillance; but even more damaging than that perhaps was the disapproving eye fellow black activists kept on Baldwin and other ‘known’ gays.  A NY Congressman threatened to spread a rumor that Dr. King was having an affair with Bayard Rustin if King didn't fire his gay colleague.  (Rustin went on to organize the original March on Washington. See the Nancy Kates documentary "Brother Outsider.") At the same time other black activists tried to undermine any influence that Baldwin had.

There's a lovely documentary about Baldwin by Karen Thorsen, “Price of the Ticket,” in which many black activists appear at Baldwin’s memorial in Manhattan to praise their brother.  As I watched it I thought about their severe lack of brotherhood when Baldwin was alive. In his lifetime the nationalist element treated him like the FBI treated them and other black activists.

All of us carry those scars from what sometimes might seem like harmless wounds. We just don t know what residual affects we’ll end up carrying around with us.  Maybe that's what made James Baldwin such an overachiever.  Who knows? 

These were the treacherous waters Baldwin navigated as he wrote “Giovanni’s Room.”  People were risking their lives; demonstrators were being maimed and killed.  How important was it for him to write a book his brothers thought would set back the Civil Rights Movement?

Reflecting on Baldwin’s dilemma does make me wonder what is different today in our many movements.  How dismissive are we with each other? Recent reverberations from the fight against Proposition 8 in California in the hope of legalizing marriage equality was a good reminder of how insular communities can be.  The black community may feel that the gay movement is riding on its accomplishments as if all movements are not made from the same bricks. 

 The gay community may feel so hip it doesn't have time to really look at the past and honor what went before.  But if we can honor that past and invest in a future that includes us all there might be something worth fighting for.  The hard road that Baldwin walked may have been worth it. 

It’s weirdly great that Oprah is honoring the Freedom Riders.  Yes, it’ll be sudsy and glitzy at the same time. But truth is the heartland watches Oprah!  It’s crucial that they and we remember.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Drama Queen

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
                                                                                             Audre Lorde

 When James Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner,” opened in 1965 its neighbors on Broadway represented the spectrum of dramaturgy: from “Danton’s Death” to “The Zulu and the Zayda” with Maurice Chevalier somewhere in the middle.  Coming as it did from the pen of one of the major African American political essayists in the U.S. “The Amen Corner,” must have been kind of a surprise because the story’s central theme was not the internal workings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott or development of the sit in as strategy but rather the personal struggles of a woman preacher and her family.  It felt almost like soap opera to some critics.
But soap is how the world turns!  In many ways it is in the theatre that Baldwin most reflects his dramatic interior life that is kept at bay in his more intellectual essays and in his novels. Both “The Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” (1964) dig into the frayed emotional lives of the characters and the ‘movement’ is the context not the total content.
Baldwin’s approach presages Robin Morgan’s feminist credo: ‘the personal is political.’  Baldwin understood that “Freedom is personal… [it is]…a complex, difficult—and private—thing .”  It is in his drama that Baldwin reveals a variety of personal vulnerabilities that might remain cloaked by his intellectual acuity in his books of essays.
“The Amen Corner” is, at its heart, an exposition of Baldwin’s personal struggle with religion and his family, especially his (step) father David.  “Blues for Mister Charlie” is the cri de coeur of a man who’s spirit lives despite the brutal murders around him.
Baldwin’s other (and more obscure) play “Giovanni’s Room,” (WHOSE SCRIPT I’M SEARCHING DESPARATELY FOR!!!) is based on his novel.  And despite it being set in Paris and its characters being white, not black, perhaps, it is the most personal of them all.  The parallels between the novel’s progress and that of Baldwin’s emotional relationship with lovers in general and with the younger Swiss painter, Lucien Happersberger are both tenuous and obvious. Even though the novel predates their break up by several years I think it illuminates the kind of rejection Baldwin lived with all of his life and had come to anticipate.  Certainly Lucien’s ambivalence about his sexuality didn’t inspire confidence in Baldwin.  But evidence of the depth of Baldwin’s love for Lucien lies in the fact that he maintained a profound relationship with him despite his desertion of Baldwin to marry not just anyone—but Diana Sands, the star of Baldwin’s play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.”
The dramatic conclusion of the novel and the play—the death of Giovanni—does not neatly represent the more mundane resolution of Baldwin’s heartbreak—the two remained close friends as only queer people can do. The ending can, however, be read as a powerful evocation of the emotional turmoil through which Baldwin lived when, like his character Giovanni, he is abandoned by his lover and by the Black writers he admired.
It was with the publication of “Giovanni’s Room,” despite warnings that the homosexual nature of the central relationship would ruin his career that Baldwin finally comes fully into himself as an adult, African American man.  The ghosts of religion, of his father (as represented by the many Black militants who disparaged him) and his own reservations are vanquished.  It is this wholeness that might have aided him in living through the enormity of his heartbreak(s).  Baldwin worked for many years on the theatrical adaptation of the book.  The workshop production at the famed Actors Studio in New York in 1965 as well as another in Turkey did not result in the Broadway production Baldwin had hoped for.  It did, however stand as a testament to the deeply emotional life that Baldwin lead and how insistent he was that the personal journey he made as a lover of men not disappear under his reputation as a writer of and about the Civil Rights Movement.
Having spoken out loud, Baldwin insures that his passion for life live on—both on the page and on the stage.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Toujour l'amour

 “I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something. For one thing I fell in love.”

So James Baldwin is quoted in Randall Kenan’s biography (Chelsea House), and it’s there that I started thinking about Baldwin’s relationship to his novel, “Giovanni’s Room.”

The beautiful symmetry of the idea of starving being balanced by falling in love is amazingly simple yet fully expressive of the experience.  Love fills you up in a way that nothing else can…not even French food.

“Giovanni’s Room” was a revelation in 1957—it was written by an African American man; was set in Paris and about the love affair between two men...not African American men.  Editors, activists, anyone who could catch his ear warned Baldwin against publishing the novel.  It would ruin his career…they said.  Writing for magazines; activism in the Civil Rights Movement; career as a novelist—all threatened according to naysayers.

In some ways that response is not surprising in the context of the brutality evidenced in that historical moment: The US military had to be used to escort young Black kids to whites-only schools.  Fourteen-year old Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi because he was suspected of speaking to a white woman. Demonstrators found themselves assaulted by bone-cracking fire hoses. Realtors and neighborhood associations conspired to keep neighborhoods white.  Every ugly impulse that had remained unspoken was now howling across the country.

Underlying much of the anxiety, treachery and betrayal of human rights was/is acute erotophobia.  The Puritan roots of US culture are insidiously destructive; they helped keep women in the kitchen, to make birth control almost unattainable, keep victims silent about sexual abuse, prevent sex education in schools…and on and on.  All this while women were increasingly objectified as if that would contain and control the danger of sexual desire.

The convoluted nature of this culture’s relationship to sexuality and how it was visited on Black slaves makes it understandable that African Americans did not want to hear a story about sexual desire and certainly not between two men.

But as Baldwin said: he fell in love.  It was with Lucien, a charming, handsome Swiss nascent painter, eight years his junior who he met in a sketchy Parisian bar frequented by what he called “ambivalent men.”  It was the full feeling of love that Baldwin was working his way toward expressing. 

“Giovanni’s Room” is not a happy-forever-after tale but the core of the story is the inexorability of love.  It is a love that has the certainty of the tides which must be recognized.  This is what people were afraid of in the 1950s as they warned Baldwin not to publish his book.  This is what people are afraid of today when they pass laws decreeing who can be family to whom. Or when they bash queer people on the street.  
Things have changed and yet they haven’t. 

But Baldwin published the book and it’s still in print more than 50 years later. Giving credence to one of my favorite rallying cries from the early Gay Pride marches: An army of lovers can not fail!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Cross of Redemption

Randall Kenan says in his introduction to his new collection of James Baldwin’s essays “…he was audacious in his love for complex sentences; one might say even fearless in the way he deployed the English language.  Reading a Baldwin sentence can feel like recreating thought itself.”

It's true; and that’s the key to the revelatory nature of his writing and thinking.  If we look to literature to help us open our minds Baldwin’s words reveal that he is taking that journey as well.  In his sentence structure, love of words, and ideas he creates a synergy that enlivens the reader making the engagement an active, not passive one.

That’s what I felt the first time I read Baldwin.  That was before I knew anything of his biography.  And the biography only adds to an understanding of his complexity.

Born into a working poor family in Harlem, Baldwin lived through the Great Depression, the open racism which saw lynching still a sport in the south and the seditious Jim Crow of the north.  Yet his capacity for optimism and believe in human possibility is evidenced in all of his work, even when he portrays the sorrows of loss. Even when others try to dissuade him from his love.

That’s one of the things that makes “Giovanni’s Room” such an amazing novel.  There is no happy, candy coated ending, (spoiler alert) Giovanni goes to the guillotine and his true love remains as faithless as ever. Yet Baldwin’s sense of the power and importance of love remains.  Below is a draft of the monologue which I’m working on for the play for the character, Giovanni who is Jimmy’s muse in the play.

I’ve rewritten it several times after the readings of the play over the past two years and am still honing in on it. Here he rails against those who would suggest Jimmy burn the novel rather than publish it.

Why would he say that! A burned book is…a burned life isn’t it? 
It’s an entire village of lives tossed on a funeral pyre.  And what of the
bitterness that rises in the smoke? Do we breathe that in?
            A book is a holy vessel carrying into the world what we need.
            This is no a medieval story where the villagers race toward us with
            torches blazing with righteousness.  Do they expect my silence as they tie
            me to   the stake and light the funeral pyre?   Who is the monster here?
Some of them are afraid to be revealed…as either loving or not loving
souls.  That’s why they wave their torches at you and scream betrayer.
But revelation is why you write.  The light thrown from their torches can’t
be contained to just one story or another.  All stories are revealed.  If you
find fear and bitterness they stare out from the receding dark.  If you find
love it shines brighter than all fire.  

You can not hide from yourself or from them and hope to ever really see
anything.  If they do not care for who I am, then they certainly don’t care
for who you are.  In truth they do not care for themselves at all. 
And so you must write.

            Before we are words on a page…it is there…our need for each other.
            You ask what should you do with such monumental need? There is only
            one thing: write.

            Without the sound of Luc’s breath on the pillow next to you…you write.
            Against these men who juggle the fires of your destruction as if they are
            in the center ring of a circus… you write.  When the sound of mourning
is so deep the mourners can barely breathe…you write. 

            It is the thing you do to turn torches into lanterns. 
The words wring life from death. 


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Home Sweet...

Homemaking is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about James Baldwin.  Cafés, voluminous cigarette smoke, cocktail parties, literary debates, handsome young men, civil rights passion, yes.  But domestication has not been on the long list of ideas that Baldwin’s name evokes for me. 

After I devoured “The Well of Loneliness” when I was about 14, I discovered “Waiting for Giovanni” and was relieved to know that there were more than just white ‘homosexuals’ in Victorian garb; we could also be a black and from Harlem. It was important (back in the day) to know we came in all colors; although happy endings were still far in the future.  The world of Baldwin seemed to me one of danger, emotional endurance and melancholy; there was not a whiff of home baked cookies. 

But two things added more texture to the picture I had of Baldwin.  “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade” by M.J. Zaboroska, is a very readable exploration of his life and writing between 1961 and1971.  That was, coincidentally, the beginning of my devotion to his work…from my first desperate search for like beings to a mature appreciation of his creative skills and political astuteness.

One of the many wonderful revelations Ms. Zaboroska explores is how the theme of home and homemaking “weighed increasingly on Baldwin throughout his Turkish period.” She also reveals how, in letters over the years, Baldwin discussed his appreciation of the cozy, home qualities of his apartment in Turkey as well as some writing colonies he worked in. 

This view helped me form an idea about the interior life of my main character, Jimmy, and what are some of the needs that drive him.  On the exterior he is erudite, sharp tongued, exquisitely perceptive, all qualities which place him apart from others.  Internally he yearns for the closeness of relationships and homecomings the way that most of us do.

The second thing which helped confirm the direction I was going in was meeting James Baldwin’s “sister-out-law,” Carole. (We say “sister-out-law” since she and JB’s brother, David, never legally married.) This was an amazing experience, partly because Carole is great fun and we could reminisce about the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s as if we’d known each other then. And her life with David and close relationship with JB gave her a unique perspective.  She, David and their son sometimes spent summers with JB in Turkey and France providing some of that ‘home’ JB yearned for. A young, artist herself, living on the vibrant art scene, Carole saw up close the Jimmy that I was creating on the page. 

During our meal together at one point she mentioned JB’s ‘fragility’ and my heart leapt.  That was exactly the quality I’ve been trying to define but I hadn’t gotten to that word yet.  How could I portray a hugely successful intellectual activist from the inside out so the audience can feel the fragile place where he yearns for ‘home?’

The lovers, the books, the cafés were all pointing him in that direction; that place—either physically or emotionally—where he could feel at home with himself and with the world.   

In April “Waiting for Giovanni” will have a reading in Minneapolis at Macalister College where my collaborator, Harry Waters Jr. teaches. Carole, who’ll be in town for a conference, will have a chance to hear if I’ve captured the Jimmy she knew and loved.  Her stories of those times do make his domestic aspect seem more recognizable and make Baldwin feel more familiar.  It is, after all, from that core fragile place of need that all his passion flowed. Which may be true for many of us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Six degrees of Giovanni...

…or the people on my road to writing a play about James Baldwin. 

Sometime in the 1960s my high school in Boston took us on a rare class trip.  Our school was not among the most well endowed…I can count the school trips we made in my four years on one hand.  However, this one was memorable. 

We went downtown to see a professional production of “Miss Reardon Drinks a Little.” I don’t think it was the best play but it was so professional and magical I never forgot the thrill of it.  So when I got to college I signed up for the practical major, sociology, and the heart minor, theatre.

After graduation I left home and moved to New York City thinking I was going to work in journalism but I took a job teaching theatre to youth while I was in grad school. My career as a Barbara Walters replacement receded with each theatre workshop I taught.

Once I completed my journalism degree I joined a new theatre group while I waited for a network news executive to discover me. American Theatre Experiment (whose founder, Richard Gaffield, introduced me to one of the owners of Cornelia Street Café where I later did my first poetry reading—but that’s another blog) became my home where I worked on lots of readings and several productions, one of which was an historic (and impressive) restaging of an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel NATIVE SON. 

There I met a wonderful actor/writer with Irish charm and a grand sense of adventure, Shawn McAllister  He befriended this anxious little colored girl and taught me how to shoot pool and drink whisky.  We talked about theatre and our lives---present and past--- and finally uncovered an odd confluence of things: Shawn knew folks connected to the same production of “Miss Reardon Drinks a Little” that I’d seen years before in Boston.  In that moment of connection I understood the profound bridges between people that theatre can build.  Without theatre Shawn and I probably would never have met, and that meeting confirmed the possibilities that my youthful theatre experience had sparked.

Shawn’s friendship along with others a made at ATE gave me the courage to seek out the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop which read new plays by writers of color every Monday with great actors like Morgan Freeman. It was working as a stage manager for the workshop and for Off and Off Off Broadway productions that I met Harry Waters Jr.

Harry had recently graduated from Princeton and come to New York City at a magical time in theatre.  The high point of the Black Theatre Movement of the 1960s in NYC was fading, but some of the companies and actors were still bright lights in the firmament.

By the mid-1970s the iconic New Lafayette Theatre was dissipating but the Negro Ensemble Company and the National Black Theatre were still producing.  The history of the work each did and the influence on U.S. theatre and film is still to be fully analyzed.  But the lasting effect on me shows up in everything I do.  Whether being in the audience of a New Lafayette Theatre ritual/play in Harlem or stage managing for a new Ed Bullins play in the West Village or helping designer Sandy Ross hang lights at the Negro Ensemble Company or watching Alfre Woodard in her formative stage acting in a little play…it’s all in here and comes out in the writing. 

By the 1980s I was so ready to write I must have been sweating ink, but I was having a difficult time figuring out what to write about.  Who would care about my life?  Little art that I saw or worked on reflected who I was as a raised poor, colored lesbian feminist; so I turned to fiction and was embraced by the women’s presses and magazines.

Soon two other things happened to close the circle on this path (I know: too many metaphors in one blog).  I wandered into the lesbian/feminist theatre on the Lower East Side, WOW Café, where I met Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver. Then I saw Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” (the play not the T. Perry movie!) about 10 times.

From Miss Reardon to that moment I had not understood that I just needed to write from inside myself about anything I wanted.  It would start with me and the women who raised me, my multi-ethnic family, and our neighborhood.  I could use any forms I wanted…poetry, memoir, vampire stories.  Plays.

All of these disparate people, most of whom never met each other, many of whom probably don’t remember me brought me to this moment where Harry and I are taking this journey to explore James Baldwin’s mind.  When I first picked up the copy of “Giovanni’s Room” when I was a teenager in my father’s flat it was a personal revelation …and what isn’t when you’re a teenager.  But I had no reason to believe the novel would turn into such a professional passion. 

In the reading about Baldwin’s life I’ve done to prepare to write this piece, I’ve found so many of the anxieties and uncertainties that I carried inside myself through those years working in NY theatre…who am I, why was my vision valuable, will people care, will people of color hate me?  Insecurity is not the first word that comes to mind when anyone thinks of James Baldwin.  But he was a short, small built, dark-skinned, not traditionally (Western-wise) good looking, gay man in the 1950s and 60s.  Insecurity would be the least of the things anyone in his right mind might be feeling, whatever the persona he projected, whatever his brilliance on the page.

Because Harry and I had worked ‘in the trenches’ as they say, toiling in NYC theatre side by side we reconnected with a sense of trust.  When he asked me to write something about Baldwin…I had no idea it would turn into a journey lasting so long or one so full of love.

Next week we’re casting for the final two parts, including GIOVANNI!  And next month we’re doing another reading of the play in Minneapolis so I’ll get to hear my most recent version of the script.  Wish us luck!  More next Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Waiting 4 Giovanni

As a kid growing up with my great grandmother in Boston in the early 1960s I learned to love reading like most kids learned to jump rope.  And when I visited my father most weekends I loved that reading was as intrinsic to his life as it was to mine.  It was in his flat among a stack of magazines and novels that I first discovered James Baldwin.

I started with "Giovanni's Room" because it was shorter.  I can identify moments when I knew my life stopped in place and turned onto a new path.  That was one of those moments.  Baldwin's writing took my breath away and the story was about the ill-fated love affair between two men in Paris.  In Baldwin's elegant language I understood gay existed outside of my own isolation. 

Decades later and on the other side of the country my friend Harry Waters Jr., actor and director, asked me to write something for him about James Baldwin.  It was as if I'd been waiting for his request, his challenge all of my life.  It was strange since I've spent most of my career writing lesbian/feminist literature in general and lesbian vampire stories in particular.  But I took to Baldwin like the proverbial duck to water.

This blog site will keep you up to date on the progress of this project from Harry's first challenge to the opening night of the play, "Waiting for Giovanni."  I'll relate some of the  disappointments and triumphs, talk about breakthroughs in the research and the writing; and introduce some of the people I meet along the way.

Baldwin said: "Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."  My teen encounter with Baldwin sewed the seeds of a deep love for writing as well as for his work.  That love has helped me challenge those masks over the past 40 years.  

There will be much talk about the 'isms' that have contaminated our loves but mostly this blog is about of James of of theatre.  I hope you'll leave this spot and dash off to re-read JB or some other writer or to buy theatre tickets or partake of some cultural experience.  Who we are as a country is imbedded in our culture and we are that culture.  All of us.  Read on! Right on!