Sunday, August 31, 2014
On Directing Readings At The X
A photo of myself, Ted Lange, and singer Juno Brown. Photo by Dorian Hall. I had an amazing time directing the series of seven plays every Tuesday from Tuesday, July 7th to Tuesday, August 28th. It was a cathartic experience for me that taught me about my sincere ambition to direct, produce, or support historical plays. Not enough of them are produced. All too often, stories on stage about the Black experience written by Black writers become musicals. I am not sure that Lorraine Hansberry would have approved of the drama based on her own life experiences being turned into a musical. Her work, like each of these plays, like the art that Malcolm X encouraged, was about raising the race and class consciousness of its audience. For this reason, I learned especially after directing my plays, the importance of brevity, and the power of nonverbal physical performance that can convey a meaningful message better than any words. The first play I directed this summer was the first of Ted Lange’s trilogy called “George Washington’s Boy,” about George Washington’s slave Billy who is convincing his owner George Washington to free him. Two important dynamics are raised in this play: the dependence of Billy on George to essentially approve his marriage to Margaret, and Martha’s enslaved Oney Judge’s escape that Billy is unable to emulate Oney and escape and descends into alcoholism after suffering a leg injury. Washington on his death bed tells Billy never to look back. We got to read this play in its entirety, which featured Gerson Alexander as George Washington, Aaron Bell as Billy, James Stankunas as Alexander Hamilton, and Baset as Margaret and Oney Judge. This was the only night of the eight weeks that we did not get to read the play in its entirety because a torrential storm descended on the gazebo we read in. So, we finished up to the middle of the second act, when Washington is preparing for his battle at Trenton. The second play we read, called “Unity Valley” and written by myself, picks up where we left off historically, on George Washington’s deathbed in December 1799, except this time the setting is exclusively in the meetinghouse of Richard Allen’s then newly formed Bethel A.M.E. Church. This play “Unity Valley” was a fictional account based on David Barclay’s actual 1803 pamphlet “An Account of Slaves At Unity Valley Pen in Jamaica,” and was an opportunity for me to hear the play for a second time get read. Because of the rain in the forecast, we read this piece in the same place where we rehearsed, which is in my home. Tiffany Barrett read the role of Amelia; Carlene Taylor read Mintas; Shayne Powell read Prince; Eric Holte read Simon; Julian Brelsford read Lemaitre; Susan Chast read Granger; and Arnold Kendall read David Barclay. This reading taught me that I had one structural adjustment to make in terms of changing a georgraphical location in the last few pages of the piece. But a dramatic breakthrough with the performance of this play came through for me in the aggressiveness of Prince at the very end of this play. Directing Prince’s final bold act at the end was important for me to see in terms of the direction that the work had to go in. I believe this is one of those plays that would take off dramatically with the right director and the right production to convey the message, and that message is concerned with the reality that, for some free Blacks in Philadelphia at the death of George Washington, the Haitian Revolution was in fact a magnet and an ideal place to be, and in order to get there, one had to take great risks. The third play of this series, read on Tuesday, July 22nd was the second of Ted Lange’s trilogy called “The Journals of Osborne Anderson.” This play presents in dramatic stage form the experience of revolutionary John Brown from the perspective and from the journals of Osborne Anderson. I have been teaching African American History for five semesters now at Delaware County Community College and one of the narratives I teach the class is an excerpt of Osborne Anderson, so when I discovered that Ted Lange had written a play dedicated to him, around last summer, I was excited to have the opportunity to direct this. I think that there are key dramatic moments in this play that cannot be missed. One is the suspenseful setup that Lange writes at the very beginning of this play. This setup between Doyle, a border ruffian, and Stevens, an antislavery soldier is set up first to get the audience to sympathize with John Brown’s army. The audience essentially roots for the success of John Brown’s army, and wants to see Brown’s army succeed and abolition completed. However obstacles get in the way. The main obstacle the audience is set up to hate is the Virginia militia who surround the firehouse that Brown and his collaborators are trapped in. Lange also presents Frederick Douglass as a prominent character in this play may not directly participate in Brown’s attack on the Confederate arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, but who ultimately provides material support for it, in terms of a space and in terms of soldiers. The first act deals with very serious questions about social change that are incredibly relevant today: whether social change can come about by the means of moral suasion that Douglass practiced or whether it can come about by the means of armed revolution that John Brown practiced. However the beauty of Lange’s play as a director for me is dealing with Black men who believed that armed revolution was the best way to bring about social change. Lange’s John Brown not only believed this. Osborne Anderson, Shields Green, John Copeland, and Dangerfield Newby believed this as well, and Lange exposes the difference of opinion between each of them. As a former Oberlin college student, John Copeland makes it his duty to correct his grammar. The most powerful drama for me in this play which came out in the reading is the exchanges between the former Oberlin student John Copeland the the nephew of George Washington, Lewis Washington, also read by Gerson Alexander. Lewis is mortified that he becomes a prisoner to Brown and his army and treads thin ice with the gun-toting Copeland who is ready to shoot him if he dares call Copeland the n-word again. The power of this play is the noble way that Ted Lange writes John Brown’s resignation to his death. His last powerful line is one that recalls the beautiful intellect of George Jackson: “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” Ted Lange writes John Brown very nobly. Lange raises the issue that I raised in my dissertation, that social change in America can only happen when individuals, psychologically divorced from racism, have a strong enough race consciousness and class consciousness to work ACROSS race, as John Brown and Osborne Anderson did, to end class oppression. Slavery was class oppression in the South. This has an interesting comparison with how Dominic Taylor wrote the life of Osborne Anderson. Osborne Anderson was read memorably by Brian Anthony Wilson. The reading by Norman Marshall as John Brown was incredible. Elizabeth Michaels as his second wife Mary Brown was absolutely incredible and exposed the very tender moments of John Brown. The second act of this play dealt with the trial of John Brown and his subsequent hanging. The drama is raised to a higher pitch when the mother of John Copeland, Delilah Copeland, read by Meryl Lynn Brown, discovers that the state of Virginia confiscated her son’s body for medical purposes. At the end of the play I believe we are led to see Osborne Anderson and John Brown as noble men who worked across racial lines to foment class revolution. The fourth play read in this series was a play that I saw first in 2011 at the Audubon Ballroom and I fell in love with. It is called “Voices From Harper’s Ferry” and it is written by Dominic Taylor and it is a beautiful homage to Osborne Anderson. The play opens with in the 1870s with two DC policemen kicking an unidentified body, that we later discover to be Osborne Anderson. The middle of the play and the meat of the play is learning more about how Osborne Anderson came to be. I decided to stage this reading in a way where Osborne takes center stage. The first act is concerned with the raid on Harper’s Ferry and features a serious dramatic conflict between Dangerfield Newby whom Taylor writes with more agency than Lange. Taylor also fleshes out Shields Green and gives him a distinct Senegalese identity as well as a very vivid memory of being raped that can only in my opinion be played very seriously. The first act ends with the raid, and the second act picks up in a very creative way, with those who are deceased speaking to Osborne Anderson in his head, as he was the lone survivor of that raid. I had Newby, Green, and Copeland walk around Anderson who is sitting in a chair, and I think this brought home better the message Taylor was sending behind the kind of meaning that these men had in Anderson’s life, that has not been emphasized before. This play is also infused with song and Taylor shows in it how songs are used as codes to undermine the institution of slavery. Walter Deshields read Osborne Anderson; Mitchell Little read Shields Green; Denzel Owens Pryor read Lewis Leary; Eric Holte read John Copeland; and Langston Darby gave a very memorable read as Dangerfield Newby. The fifth play we read was Ted Lange’s last of his trilogy called “Lady Patriot.” This was the play that brought Ted Lange to my attention as a playwright. It was critically acclaimed at the 2013 National Black Theater Festival and I wanted to read it. Where Lange’s play “The Journals of Osborne Anderson” focuses on the necessary interracial coalitions between MEN that brought about social change in America, Ted Lange’s “Lady Patriot” focuses on the necessary interracial coalitions between WOMEN that brought about social change in America, specifically between Mary Bowser the former servant to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Elizabeth Van Lew, the neighbor of President Davis, who collaborated with Bowser to give secrets about the plans of the Confederate Army to Union soldiers. The drama of this story unfolds when Davis’s trusted servant Old Robert follows order to tie Mary Bowser up after Varina Davis discovers her reading maps in Davis’s office. As he is tying her up, Mary Bowser, read by the powerful Uta Hagen/Ossie Davis-trained actress Zuhairah McGill tells Old Robert to be a man. Ted Lange directed me to make sure the drama is pulled out of this interaction. I shared that direction to Zuhairah in her being tied up by Old Robert, read perfectly by Eric Holte, and she did exactly that. It made for a powerful dramatic performance along with Lawrence Geller’s reading of Jefferson Davis; Melissa Amilani’s reading of Varina Davis, and Eric Dann reads the abolitionst reporter Slydell. The sixth play that was read was my play “Negro Principles” that was read in two parts on two separate Tuesdays: Act one on August 12th and Acts two and three on August 19th. This play is based on my research of the personal and political life of A. Philip Randolph and Lucille Green Randolph. I learned from both of these readings, since my initial reading of it on February 5, 2011, that I have some editing to do. Gratefully, I have been in conversation this month with an historical dramatist whom I respect very deeply, whose work is produced across the country and across the world about getting a respectful complete production of my work. The first act is concerned with the asset that the character of Lee provides to Lucille’s Beauty and Barber shop. I discovered from this read that I wanted a lot of what is said to be directly relate to this asset. I think I found my Lee. I wrote Lee three years ago, wondering if an actor is out there capable of playing him, and I think I found him in Jaivon Lewis. He brought so much life to my character of Lee in his August 19th read, more so than his August 12th read. The first act of the play was concerned with exposing the asset of Lee and showing the economic and emotional asset he provided to THE main characters: Lucille Green Randolph and A. Philip Randolph. Lucille was read on August 12th in my home because it was raining in Malcolm X Park on that day, by the indomitable Caroline Stefanie Clay. She brought so much power to this role. Starletta DuPois, whom I first saw in the 1989 American Playhouse production of A Raisin in the Sun also starring Esther Rolle and Danny Glover performed my character of Audrey & Elizabeth Randolph in this play very very memorably. Alexander Elisa delivers an Asa that for me is the only Asa. His fluidity in capturing nuance of my words and emotions in a way that I know A. Philip Randolph would capture is like no other actor. The readings on these two nights of August 12th and August 19th taught me specifically where I need to edit, but more important, three years later, it taught me that I needed to have space between myself and this work in order to understand the value of editing it. In these readings, Lynnette R. Freeman read Delia Marshall; Walter Deshields read Howard; Meryl Lynn Brown read Mattie Powell; Mercedes Simmons read Sarah; Eric Holte read Clyde; Tanisha Saintvil read Florence and Ella on August 19th; Lena Lewis read Lucille on August 19th. The final reading of this play series was Momma Sandi’s powerful play “Stories From The Sister Circle.” I appreciated the opportunity to direct this play because it is the only play that deals so intimately about relationship issues between Black women in the Black family and it deals sensitively with the longer holocaust of African peoples that I believe this country fights very diligently to ignore and invalidate. This play centers on the relationship of a young woman, Saundra Yvette, with her mother and her efforts, alongside the efforts of her three aunts, to get her mother to stop drinking. I chose to stage this reading with Saundra Yvette’s mother Mary Alice, in the front and center of actors, in front of a table on which a bottle of alcohol sits. She occasionally drinks to the dismay of her sisters and daughter and who recall her and the memory of her funeral, Mary Alice’s funeral, in front of her. Probably one of the most meaningful responses I got to this reading was the response from my cousin Jason, who did not see Mary Alice’s alcoholism as a hindrance to her daughter but as a vehicle to invoke the storytelling ambitions of her sisters which was the traditional use of alcohol or rum in many of the Caribbean and West African religions. One of the stories in Momma Sandi’s that her sisters tell the audience and Saundra Yvette is the fertility of Anansi and how the women discovered “joy” down at the river. The stories in the end of this play become a healing ritual. Zuhairah unforgettably read the role of Mary Alice and has her own reckoning conversation with her daughter and her God about her drinking. This reckoning allows for Aunt Yaya, according to the words of sister Mama Clee, to feed her the waters of life, which allows for Mary Alice to find eternal healing from the pain resulting from the holocaust of African peoples, and also to show her daughter the importance of sharing painful experiences in bonds of sisterhood in order to survive. Mama Clee was read by Rebekah Hughston; Tamara Woods read Ethel Mae; Meryl Lynn Brown read Aunt Odessa; Eric Holte read the role of Crooner, Minister, and Lee Grant; Young Saundra was read by Mercedes Simmons and Older Saundra was read by Lena Lewis. Thank you to all the actors for making this possible. Thank you to Ted Lange whose play “Lady Patriot” inspired this reading series. Thank you to my co-director Rebekah Hughston. Thank you to the Friends of Malcolm X memorial Park. Thank you to Sharon Chestnut for conceiving the idea of the name "Readings At The X." Thank you so much ESPECIALLY to Mr. Gregory Cojolun of the Friends of Malcolm X Memorial Park for his help in making this reading series a reality. And to the funders of this reading series: Amy Kietzman, Scott Williams, Abigail Raymond, Adam Butler, and my dad Anserd Fraser. –RF.