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!

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