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 http://www.shawnmcallister.com/. 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.