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.