Friday, September 21, 2012

Clayton Riley 1935-2008

This isn’t one of those blogs where I bemoan the fate of civilization because of the dominance of technology.  I’m only observing our uneasy evolution because of it.  The internet and social networking sites are continually upgrading ways for people to connect. (Yes, I know it’s ultimately about making money.)  And it seems to be working.  But sometimes I notice that what may seem like connection is such an awkward, discomforting thing as to be un-nameable. It’s the difference between shaking hands with an old friend and shaking hands with Robbie the Robot.  Still…

What brings me to this is death…and James Baldwin, of course.  I recently tried to track down an old friend, Clayton Riley, a playwright, director, cultural critic, biographer, radio personality.  Clayton was a one person cheering squad for African American culture, a walking history book of theatre, jazz and baseball.  But what I discovered was that he’d died in 2008. If I still lived in New York City I imagine I would have known when it happened; although despite his pre-eminence I can’t yet find a NY Times obit.  But surely I would have bumped into a friend on the street who would have known.

Like the last time I saw Clayton…we bumped into each other on West 12th Street and 6th Avenue.  We stood for close to two hours talking about, well, theatre, jazz and baseball.  I told him then I was starting work on a play about James Baldwin with our mutual friend Harry Waters Jr.  He was ecstatic…but he was an ecstatic as a person, made highly emotional by any bits of discovery.  He said how long overdue such a piece was and he thought I was just the one to do it because he felt I was respectful of Baldwin’s brilliance, not afraid of his gayness nor cowed by his international reputation. 

In the same conversation he told me about some new recording artist he loved, asked me about sales figures for my vampire novel, told me how Long Island had changed in the previous decade, reported on the Yankees and the Mets and wanted to know the last time I’d seen Morgan Freeman.

Back when I still lived in NYC I used to get up early and trek down to WBAI to sit in on the radio show he hosted.  It was always the most erudite moment in my day.  I’d bring in an album I thought he may not know (Joan Armatrading or Alive) and we’d talk about the music, the culture from which it sprang (British/Caribbean or feminist/jazz).  There was no topic for which he did not have a background story (tangential or not) which illuminated or expanded what you thought.

He was one of the first of my friends to read my vampire novel, The Gilda Stories.  He started his response with: “I don’t know much about vampires or lesbians.”  Then chuckled as he said, “Except you, of course.”  He proceeded to give me extensive feedback on the historical context of my book, the places where the mythology worked or didn’t, how to better shape the ending and then asked if there would be more sex.

We spent so many hours together in theatres I can’t walk into one without thinking of him even now.  I toiled away at the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop to which he'd invited me, where I met my first playwrights. I worked on a production of his epic play, “Gilbeau,” (featuring the magnificent singer/actor, Novella Nelson) as well as on a fantastic chamber piece, “On the Lock In,” by one of his friends,  David Langston Smyrl, which we staged at the Public Theatre and in clubs around NYC.  I began my theatre training with him in those intense and fulfilling moments of rehearsal and production, critique and commentary.

One imagines friends like this are just there, in the world always. Clayton was a prodigious thinker and talker, rhythmic, funny, righteous, who affected the lives and careers of a coterie of theatre folk (including Morgan Freeman) who were haunting the boards in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The heyday of Black theatre was waning but the energy and talent remained, in part because people like Clayton were there to keep stoking the fire and encouraging us to believe in our talent and worth.

So I discovered he’d passed on--four years late and am left with a very empty space.  There’s really no way to connect with his family that has meaning for them; they have no reason to remember me from among the dozens of people who followed him around to listen to his wild words and share his ecstaticism.  (Although I think of his beloved daughters and wonder if I'll bump into them one day.)
So I’m using the internet to mourn.  I’ve made Clayton a research project, looking for articles by and about him, photos, anything to help me think about who he was and honour our friendship.  Sort of like a memorial service without the overrun of homemade baked goods. 

It’s difficult to imagine the upcoming reading of “Waiting for Giovanni” without Clayton.  I was so excited to have him finally hear what had come of that long ago conversation on the West Village street corner.  But the reading will happen, actually close to the anniversary of his passing. I’ll imagine Clayton standing at the back of the theatre, his elegant, lyrical posture, one of his ubiquitous caps, a darting gaze and glittering smile, eager to give me notes.

His family created a fund in his name for students: Donations can be sent to the Clayton Riley Theater Fund at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708. Attn: Carmen Ashhurst. Susan, Norman & Mark Riley

Monday, August 20, 2012

W4G on the road

On December 8,1987 I stood outside of St. John the Divine on the upper west side of Manhattan with hundreds of others who could never fit inside the church.  We waited to hear the final words of praise offered over the body of James Baldwin at his going home ceremony.  I remember being heartbroken that his voice was silenced by death and at the same time feeling inordinately proud that so many people had come to be part of his send off even though we knew we'd be not in the pews but out on the sidewalk.  I also remember being annoyed at some of the voices of praise coming from those who'd bad mouthed Baldwin in his life time because they thought his being gay meant he was not 'black enough.'  All of those feelings have lived inside of me since that time and as I wrote "Waiting for Giovanni."

Now, it's been just over a year since W4G premiered at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco...hard to believe.  The experience of working with the company of actors, designers and staff has spoiled me. They too honored Baldwin's life and set a really high barre for a collaborative, theatre experience!

So I feel fully prepared to move into a new arena, but can I contain my excitement??? New York Theatre Workshop ( has accepted my play for their staged reading series that supports the development of new work!   I'm not going to get ahead of myself, it is simply a reading...actors with script in hand...done explicitly to help me re-envision the piece and hear what my most recent rewrites sound like.  BUT I am thrilled!!!  This is the theatre that has nurtured work by Tony Kushner, Kate Moira Ryan and Paula Vogel and it gave birth to "Rent!" AND it did win 13 Tony awards this year for "Peter and the Star Catcher" and "Once."

Knowing the company's history of supporting important work and pushing boundaries I'm being ALMOST totally chill.  So when I was told who would direct the reading I nearly lost my ice cubes.  Pulling it all together will be Patricia McGregor, highlighted among the up and coming theatre talent in a recent NY Times piece (  And most exciting she worked on one of my favorite theatre pieces: FELA!

This is, of course, kind of like a blind date.  Who knows if what she sees will be what I see but her enthusiasm feels warm and genuine and I can barely maintain my sophisticated cool until I see what she does with the piece in October.  In the meantime I'll busy myself with re-reading the script to see if the story is being told in the strongest way so she has the best material to work with.

James Baldwin is so beloved and iconic in New York City...I promised not to fail him. I'm hoping that some of those folks who stood in the cold outside that church in December 25 years ago will some day soon have the opportunity to stand and praise him again when they see W4G on stage in full production.

Monday, April 23, 2012


The serendipity of life is sometimes overwhelming…could be a tidal wave or a wave of applause!  This time it was attending the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans.<>   It’s a unique way to experience the arts…relaxing in the metaphorical arms of the Crescent City and feeling the mood and emotions of Tennessee Williams' writing embracing you as well. I’d always felt a kinship with TW since I took a class in college, Williams-Miller-Albee, and realized that TW was gay and could see that the teacher was working overtime to keep students from noticing!  (Albee didn’t peek out until much later.)

At the Festival I participated in a reading of lesser performed Williams work along with a sky full of stellar performers. Somewhere there’s now a recording of me playing Zelda Fitzgerald in a Williams play…not something one would ever imagine coming across in an archives!  I managed not to act like a complete rube when I met Piper Laurie (The Hustler) and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis who I’d seen in “Angels in America.”  She proved to be an angel in person too!  (Sorry couldn’t stop myself and it’s true.)  Meeting iconic actors is like stepping backstage and seeing the magical process of the art form curled up waiting to unfold.

Even more fortuitous for me was serving on a panel about contemporary playwriting and  meeting three playwrights: John Biguenet, a nationally known New Orleans writer who’s plays (including “Shot Gun”) have explored the complex culture of the city and its people post-Katrina.  Now I have a set of new plays to read.

Also on my panel was John Guare, whose “House of Blue Leaves” turned American theatre on its ear.  And after seeing Susan Sarandon’s sensual clean up routine in the film “Atlantic City” (which he wrote) I’ve never looked at a lemon the same way. 

But sitting next to Martin Sherman, the author of “Bent,” proved to be a turning point in my theatre life last month just as viewing his play on Broadway (w/Richard Gere) was in 1980.  When I saw the play ( I was devastated by the gay ‘almost’ love story in a concentration camp and thrilled by the writing so I bought a copy.  When I started working on W4G I dug it out of my boxes so I could remember what had moved me and try to figure out how the writer did it!

Meeting Martin Sherman, who had unwittingly (along with Lorraine Hansberry) been my theatre guru was life-changing for a couple of reasons.  It wasn’t just because he agreed to read my play then praised it…though that would have been plenty!  What made my day was that he was able to talk about his experience of playwriting still as a practice.  His work was living inside him as well as on the page.  He was doing work that he wasn’t sure was good!  He was finding his way through work that needed seasoning and sometimes suffered from overly critical responses.  I didn’t expect that.

It’s not easy to stand in front of an audience and talk about your own work whether it’s successful or not.  In his words I found the inspiration to go back to the W4G script and re-enter it.  I need to bring the life I still feel about the work back to it and not feel so anxious about it failing in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago that I can’t really do the re-writing it needs.  I hope to be accepted into a play development program in NYC this fall and we’ll see how deep I can go.  On the trip I’ll be carrying my aged copy of “Bent” as well as some photos I always like to have nearby—the historic figures my characters portray.   

I’ll be adding to the pictures: Martin Sherman and, of course, Tennessee Williams!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

W4G peeks into the Apple

Playwright Doric Wilson was born in Washington State and grew up amid the opulent greenery of the Pacific Northwest. His move to the grittiness of New York City in 1958 might have been a disaster…but it wasn’t. That was also the same year that James Baldwin was becoming the toast of the town even though his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, had had such a difficult time finding an US publisher. It was also the period in which the West Village was bursting with an interracial art scene that was sparking all kinds of creativity.

Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and others mingled with the newly hip generation of artists listening to bebop and solving the problems of the world over bottles of Chianti. Doric Wilson landed in NYC and helped turn Café Cino, a small, somewhat shabby space into a theatre venue known around the world. His plays (And He Made Her, Now She Dances) entered the lexicon of downtown theatre. He was also a social activist and a member of the Gay Activist Alliance, the precursor to the current LGBT movement organizations today.

I’ve no idea if Wilson and Baldwin ever met in those fertile years of the Villages, both East and West. The differing focuses of their activism probably would not have landed them at the same cocktail parties. But they met this past January in mid-town Manhattan when the gay theatre organization Doric Wilson co-founded, produced a reading of Waiting for Giovanni.

TOSOS, which stands for The Other Side of Silence, is part of Doric Wilson’s legacy. When Mark Finley and Kathleen Warnock of TOSOS invited me to have W4G read in January to kick off their 2012 reading season my answer was an enthusiastic yes!  New York is the natural home for W4G since Baldwin was a ‘native son’ and that had been my theatre home for so many years.

But it is a weird thing to see a reading of your play that’s already had a full production. I almost felt like I was cheating on a lover. Or I could say a full cast and crew of lovers!  I had done some rewrites…nothing to totally remake the piece…but I was eager to hear if they worked. During the reading Diane, my spouse, nudged me through out the reading if she heard a new line…or sometimes it felt like a new line because of the different delivery.

Having seen the play so many times it was difficult not to think of the lines in my head exactly as the New Conservatory cast had said them. Wm Hunter, Liam Hughes, Will Giammona, Chris Nelson, Desiree Rogers, Fred Pitts, and Lonnie Haley took the lines and shaped them to their tongues, histories, bodies; at the end of the run word and actor became one. And that was comforting; the play was wearing a suit and it looked good. This new experience was like stripping the play bare so it was standing on stage in its boxers, shivering.

But that’s what’s needed sometimes, especially when you know you don’t have it all exactly as it should be. The shape is still off kilter, some lines (even when the SF cast made them sound good) are not quite right. I know as a writer of other genres that there’s a period in the process when my own ear is not to be trusted. I need another shirt thrown over the form to see if what fits.

So the intrepid actors walked into a small rehearsal room at ART/NY on 9th Avenue and waded through the dense imagery and vast vocabulary I’ve put down on the pages of two dramatic acts to simulate the styles of some of the greatest writers of the 20th century. With less than three hours of rehearsal one can not expect a full on performance with nuance and familiarity. Only hope there’s not too much stumbling and dead air.

Nothing is like the TV show “Smash!” The cast doesn’t come together and burst into song, know all the lyrics and dance routines after one day of rehearsal. And certainly not after only a three hour read through.

However the TOSOS cast were like the burst of sun in the morning illuminating all around them. K. Todd Freeman, Russell Jordan, Nicholas Wuehrmann, Dudley F. Findlay, Jr., Desiree Burch, Anthony Johnston and Lee Kaplan each tasted the words like a new flavor of ice cream and sang them into the air delivering a new interpretation. Their work was both weighty and playful, just what I needed to hear. I tried to take notes on what I wanted to rewrite but it is difficult to stop watching actors work. It’s a magical thing. No wonder  ‘The Dramatist,’ the periodical of the Dramatists Guild, just devoted a full issue to actors!

Doric Wilson had a wonderful idea when he started TOSOS…theatre is a collaborative art and we need ways to find each other.  I am pursuing ways to have structured time and attention on the script which can bring it to the next level. Then I’ll be looking forward to seeing who we get to come on board again to collaborate in the next phase as magicians…I mean actors.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Of These Matters

In his 1956 New York Times review of Baldwin's novel, Giovanni's Room, Granville Hicks wrote:
      "Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity
       and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism."
 The 'matters' he was talking about were the romantic entanglement of the main character, Giovanni, a marginally employed bartender in Paris, who falls in love with an American tourist, David, who happens to be on vacation with his girlfriend/almost fiance. Hick's review was both generous and cautious.  Given the period and this culture's erotophobia in general and homophobia specifically this novel was not what was expected from the nation's preeminent young essayist on the Black Civil Rights movement.  

I've written a lot of literary and film reviews and I can feel Hicks shaping his words carefully so that his appreciation of Baldwin's work is clear.  He compares him to Proust and admires his style; at the same time he's quite restrained.  I haven't read other work by Hicks so I can't honestly say if this is he usual writing style or if it was a special tone for the New York Times and the anticipated backlash.

Although many people think I use Baldwin's words in the play--I don't.  The Granville Hicks quote is the only place where I use any words other than those of my imagination.  As I prepare to go to NYC to see the reading of the updated version of the play I reread the full review Hicks wrote. When I did I realized I had fallen in love with the quote and used it to help set up a monologue but I hadn't really taken in the full review. I had also not thought about what it probably took for him to write favorably about a "homosexual novel" featuring all white characters written by a young African American. 

Their New York City was a very different one from the one I'll visit next week.  In 1956 people still spoke in full sentences with words of more than one syllable. ( I meant that as a simple observation rather than being snarky,sorry.) And they wore shapely clothes and admired philosophy and ideas.  Okay, it was also segregated, still run by robber barons and who knows what other degrading history I've glossed over in my glowy look back!

But it is still NYC and theatre and actors and directors and audiences...and words.  So I am going to read some more Granville Hicks to find out who he was, how he came to understand Baldwin's novel and be brave enough  speak kindly of it in print.  Despite the censorious nature of the culture in which he made his writing career Granville Hicks understood that Baldwin was writing about "the rareness and difficulty of love" and wasn't afraid to say so.  That's what "Waiting for Giovanni" is about to and I hope someone will say that about it back east.

It will be fun to be back in Baldwin's...and Hicks' town!

Monday, January 2, 2012

A glorious greed

"The writer's greed is appalling. He wants, or seems to want, everything and practically everybody, in another sense, and at the same time, he needs no one at all."

James Baldwin's observation about a writer's need is both accurate and chilling.  In one sense Baldwin was thrusting his writing out into the world as if it was a life raft that could help float us to freedom.  In another way, just like many of us, the raft is also for him.  It's meant to buoy up ego, to help love find its way to him.  In the satisfaction of a story well told (whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry, song or play) comes a desperately craved moment of validation.

But it's only ever a moment.  Then the writer climbs back into a carapace and begins again, almost oblivious to the world outside, at the same time taking everything.  The cycle of how a play emerges from that hidden place inside a writer's life reveals that greed. It's a cycle that is shared by all the artists collaborating on the project.  Since it's rarely a straight line from typewriter to stage lights sometimes only the hunger the writer has inside can urge the work forward.  

"Waiting for Giovanni" grew out of a blend of those urgent needs--both Baldwin's(as they were perceived by me watching that raft float by) and my own.  I always imagine that I'm writing something that will maybe save someone's life...or change it...or at least give them something to think about for more than 10 minutes.  I push, cajole, call out...whatever it takes to get people to come sit in the audience and see what I have to say...what Baldwin still has to tell us.

After an amazingly successful run in San Francisco...sold out for almost the entire run...figuring out where it goes from there is not easy.  A theatre group in New York City is doing a public reading of W4G in January, and unlike the previous road the play has traveled now it is in the hands of someone else who is new to it.  The group will cast and direct and present their vision of  my vision of Baldwin's vision. Scary.  Magic.
It's only a reading; no commitment; I'm not even sure I can get any producer types to come and listen. I'm going to send off a newly edited version of the piece next week like it's a life raft and hope people need to climb on board.