Wednesday, September 4, 2013

50 years and counting

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the historic "I Have a Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I, of course, remember watching the event on television and being amazed, along with everyone else, that so many people showed up to cover the National Mall.  I loved seeing people with their feet in the huge reflecting pool! There was no Twitter, Facebook or email to get the word out, yet everyone knew.  The national press wasn't informing us it was taking place; they were warning us about the probable violence!

For organizers, celebrities, and working folk the event was meant to serve notice on the JFK White House that people wanted human rights and JOBS.  Fifty years later we're still having the same conversation.

Watching the commemorative march on television last week there were some notable differences from the years before.  At the 25th Anniversary celebration activists had to wrestle with organizers to have lesbian poet/activist Audre Lorde invited to speak from the stage.  Internationally known and the poet laureate of the state of New York when she died in 1992, Audre's advocates had to battle for for the organizers to recognize a lesbian of color as a legitimate spokesperson for human rights.  Not surprising since the only woman to speak from the stage at the original March was singer and WWII hero Josephine Baker! The stalwart women who'd been working in the deep south for years like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker were not highlighted at all.  This year Myrlie Evers Williams was just the beginning of the women who spoke.

This year's celebration also displayed another gratifying change: Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March was not totally ignored.  Years ago when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, Rustin was all but invisible among the heroes being honored.  Even though A. Phillip Randolph had insisted on his value other March organizers didn't know if they could work with a 'homosexual'!  My favorite Randolph quote is when someone challenged him about working with Rustin, a known homosexual: , “Well, well, if Bayard, a homosexual, is that talented—and I know the work he does for me—maybe I should be looking for somebody else homosexual who could be so useful."

This year MSNBC even had a panel of Black queer people to talk about the meaning of the March to the Gay movement!  And Bayard Rustin was quoted as an out gay man by many speakers.  This doesn't mean everything has been healed between the Black and the Gay movements, only that there's been some growth!  James Baldwin would have been proud to be on that stage this year, to be able to be his full self and not have to weigh which was more important--being black or being gay.

Emory University is holding a conference this spring to explore some of the ways the movements are different or similar.  It will be a valuable time we can carry on the conversation and help rid the world of the idea that people of color have to choose one aspect of themselves and ignore all others! 

Whose Beloved Community takes place at Emory March 27-29, 2014.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


I know I'm being totally saccharine but I was terribly sad when I watched the final episode of the TV series, SMASH.  Of course, the two-year run was full of ridiculous, unlikely things about play production...not the part about the director sleeping with his leading ladies, though.  But there was something else there that really touched me.

Despite the drama of backstabbing, envy and hard edged economic realities any production faces, (can we actually get more financial support for theatre from the Mob?) especially when it hopes to go to Broadway, SMASH was also able to embody the sparks of creativity that make a play, the team work it takes to realize a dream and the relentless hard work theatre demands.  It's especially heart rending when you understand that for each play that does 'make it,' (even if you define making it as only getting a critical review published in the paper. And I remember when plays were reviewed on the TV news!) there are hundreds more that may make it to one production only and thousands more which never make it that far.

It's especially difficult when you see that theatres are facing such economic challenges they often fall back on familiar writers, familiar plays to try and ensure they have full houses.  I was a stage manager in New York City's Off and Off Off Broadway for a decade so know how companies make those ends meet.  I once worked a show in the West Village where I called the light cues, sewed the costumes, found all the props and took phone reservations for a sum not even high enough to call a salary! I was like a theatrical Swiss Army knife. But the passion for the play and for each other brought us all back every day and night.  Live theatre is like nothing else in the arts.

I'm also feeling nostalgic about SMASH, I guess, because I've been sending out the script to "Waiting for Giovanni" in hopes of finding a new venue and it feels suddenly like a futile exercise.  Too many playwrights, too few slots!  I also used to read scripts for the Public Theatre in NYC and really really do know how many playwrights there are!  And combine that with the fact that I'm NOT in NYC which makes playwrights practically invisible, I wonder less and less why playwrights have a reputation for being drinkers--numbing the pain of invisibility!

The experience of working on the production of  W4G at New Conservatory Theatre Center was such an amazing example of team work overcoming economic and other obstacles I have to keep carrying the experience with me as I crank out the inquiry letters, synopses and scripts to anonymous literary departments at theatres across the country.  The memory of that team..actors, crew, staff...makes me keep going because they thought the play was worth it so I have to too. 

SMASH did a wonderful rendition of the Carrie Underwood song, 'Crazy Dreams,' that I loved. The words help as much as the picture of my W4G cast: 

'Hello you long shots/You dark horse runners/Hairbrush singers, dashboard drummers/Hello you wild magnolias/Just waiting to bloom.../...even crazy dreams come true...


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Last year was the centennial of the birth of civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin.  He was the man who brought Gandhi’s notion of non-violence to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the architect of the historic March on Washington in 1963.  This year will see a number of celebrations of his life and because it’s 2013 not 1963 he can be celebrated, in addition, as a pacifist and a gay man. 

I’m working with a group of scholars at Emory University to look at the convergences and divergences between the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Gay (or LGBT, if you will) Movement.  We’re planning a conference at Emory in 2014 and to that end I’ve been reading a lot about African American activists who straddle both identities.  People such as Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin were aware that they saw more than one thing when they looked in a mirror.  It’s exciting to finally have a discussion out loud about this idea of connection and begin to dispel the hard-held belief that somehow being African American is a universe away from being gay.

And it’s lovely to examine the life of Bayard Rustin who was such an inspiration to James Baldwin.  See “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin” (Cleis Books) edited by Donald Weise and Devon Carbado (one of my confreres on the Emory project) or the documentary film, “Brother Outsider (”

Rustin was one of the leaders in Dr. King’s inner circle with whom Baldwin felt most comfortable.  He didn’t experience the disapproval from Rustin for his queerness or for the queerness in his fiction.  They were not of the same generation (Rustin was born in 1912 and Baldwin in 1924) but they were both from generations for whom the concept of a Gay Movement was almost impossible to imagine.  Being Gay meant being quiet about it, so while neither was in the closet they couldn’t imagine carrying a banner.

For an African American, who watched friends and relatives being raped, lynched, denied the right to vote or go into stores; who saw them being attached by police dogs and fire hoses, nothing seemed equally as important as the fight to stop these atrocities.  There seemed no parallel.  Yet, of course, there are parallels in the virulence of the fear people have for both groups. 

And to some degree the consistent effort to remain hidden had kept attacks against gay people from the public eye.  And when an indignity was revealed—such as being dragged from a public drinking establishment—too many people, especially Blacks trying to achieve middle class respectability, thought it was only what they deserved.  Everyone was so afraid of discussion of sexuality there could only be shame not pride.

But Baldwin frequently defended Rustin when other Black politicians and activists attacked him.  Rustin was what we used to call ‘flamboyant,’ he carried an ornamental walking stick  and was once arrested for having public sex.  That could have ended his activist career.  But he stood proud; and he and Baldwin stood together as “bastard black queers,’ to quote Rustin.

When doing research on “Waiting for Giovanni” one of the most moving moments was reading about Baldwin’s understandable trepidations about going south where Freedom Riders had been bombed and other activists had been murdered.  I came across a wonderful photo of Baldwin looking youthful and intense standing beside the imperial Rustin.  The photo captures a snapshot of the dynamism of a movement as well as the deliberately obscured participation of Black gay people in the Civil rights Movement of the 1960s.

My hope is that the play, “Waiting for Giovanni” and the upcoming celebrations of Rustin’s life, as well as the Emory Conference, entitled Whose Beloved Community (more info to come), will ignite people’s curiosity enough so they learn more and no longer accept the half-truths of history but insist on knowing how we got as far as we have.  We need to know these things if we expect to go any further.

Monday, January 14, 2013

W4G At New York Theatre Workshop

This year, 2013, is the 60th anniversary of the publication of James Baldwin’s first novel, “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”  Semi-autobiographical, it is a searing document that lays bare the souls of Black folks who have committed themselves to the Christian church yet live hypocritical lies.  In 1953 such a novel from an African American author was unheard of…actually almost any novel from an African American author was unheard of! 
There was the legendary Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha” which remains underappreciated. Ann Petry, known for her earlier novel “The Street,” also published “The Narrows” in the same year.  Surely there are others that don’t immediately come to mind.  But the Baldwin book opened up a new world of thinking about Black literature in part because of its frankness about the complex (not completely positive) spirituality of the African American community.  Another reason is because of the novel’s subtext of homosexual attraction the main character, John, has for his friend Elisha. 

Near the end of the novel they have a Pinteresque conversation about sin and salvation in which John asks: “That song they sing…if it costs my life—is that the price?”
Elisha answers, “Yes…” and in a single word he pulls the rug out from beneath John’s affection.  The song is one of faith and faithlessness and one John must decide if he will sing or turn away from.

In many ways that moment is similar to many in Baldwin’s life…moments where he must face the need to be true to himself or turn away.  His novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” represents that same struggle.  One man, underprivileged and despised clings to love, while his privileged lover rejects their relationship and walks away from his lover’s death. 
In Baldwin’s civil rights activism he repeatedly confronted his belief not just in the righteousness of the cause but also a belief that humanity as a whole could be better than it was.  It was a humanitarianism that didn’t quite fit with the times.  But Baldwin was not a bitter man which comes through in John’s final words of self-assertion: “I’m ready…I’m coming…I’m on my way.” It’s there even in the tragic ending of Giovanni’s room.

Recently New York Theatre Workshop did a reading of “Waiting for Giovanni” and as I watched the rehearsal, then the public reading I was vividly reminded of that hopeful quality Baldwin’s writing has, even when he’s angry.  The actors who participated each had an openness they brought to the material, even though they were squeezing the reading in between other professional commitments, including one actor who was performing in Broadway’s “Book of Mormon.” The director, Patricia McGregor, who’d been a part of the magnificent production of “Fela,” also brought that quality as she swept the actors up in her enthusiasm and curiosity.
It was encouraging to feel that kind of elemental openness to inspiration in the young actors.  I haven’t worked in theatre in New York for more than 25 years and that was one of the things that fed me (since the salaries certainly didn’t).  This openness often there in actors, I guess, but NYC is a hard place to keep it going.  I admired the way they dug into the words, asked questions and embraced the idea of love being important to life.

I'm returning to the script to incorporate some of the ideas they came through the expertly moderated post-reading discussion.  The focus and intent of the theatre staff made the comments shart and constructive, so I have a lot to work with now that I've recovered from the holidaze!

“Waiting for Giovanni” like “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is about how crucial faith is: faith in humanity and faith in love.  Spiritual quests have little soil in which to take root if those other faiths are not respected and practiced.