Current Playwrights, Female Playwrights, Unknown playwrights

Lydia Valentine

Howdy everyone and welcome back to Unknown Playwrights!

Exciting, emerging playwright Lydia Valentine comes to us via Aliquippa, Pennsylvania and currently resides in Tacoma, Washington. In fact I stole her biography from her New Play Exchange page:

Lydia Valentine is a poet, playwright, and educator who believes in the power of good, the healing capacity of writing and reading, and the necessity of the Oxford comma. A passionate advocate for equity and social justice, proud mom, and card-carrying Blerd, Lydia grew up in Aliquippa, Pa, a small, steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, where she spent many hours of her youth at B.F. Jones Library.”

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The library where she spent her youth looks pretty badass, even in 1937.

“She now lives, reads, and writes in another gritty city, Tacoma, WA, where she has been runner-up for Tacoma Poet Laureate twice. Lydia has recently completed her first play, Aliquippa, which has had readings at empathos company, and has been Assistant Director and Dramaturg for play productions with Toy Boat Theatre Company, empathos company, UW-Tacoma, and Tacoma Little Theatre.

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Our playwriting hero!!!

She has crafted an incredibly deep, heartfelt play set entirely in her hometown.

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Really digging the stylized title page…

The play focuses on the Lockwood family:

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There’s only one character who isn’t a blood relation.

The play starts with Naomi, a woman stuck in a type of twilight zone due to past misdeeds and happenstance. Her own mother (Mama Shirl) barely acknowledges her. Same with her own daughter, Rachel. One could say she’s a loser in a hero sandwich. Mama Shirl is the ultimate survivor. Rachel is hopeful to return to school to finish her college degree. Both women have their lives in relative order. Naomi does not. The following is what happens when she calls her daughter.

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Calls her own daughter a heifer. And again…

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I don’t blame Rachel for not wanting to talk to her mother. Sometimes Naomi takes care of Rachel’s son Tamir. She does the best she can. Naomi also dreams of opening a commuity center in town.

The play really swings into motion when Tamir gets bullied and attacked on account of his race. Naomi and Rachel’s reactions reveal the generation gaps that exist in the play and provide much of the conflict:

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So…racism in American elementary schools is totally real.

Not-so-coincidentally in Pennsylvania.

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Bring back slavery, huh?

Beyond the racist teachers, there’s that whole other oil drum of Nazi worms: racist students. Recently, an entire school district in Minnesota was sued for allowing racist bullying. In New Hampshire, an elementary school student was bullied and then the school board attacked the mom, because they suck. Back in Harrisburg, in our favorite state of Pennsylvania, the same dang thing. Meanwhile, in America’s bleach stain, aka Utah, some white kids tried to wash a girl’s skin color off with a solution. What the Hell, America?

Naomi tries to give Rachel advice on how to handle the situation. Rachel reminds Naomi of the reason her kids got taken away.

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Naomi is still in the denial phase about a lot of things.

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A reading of the play.

On a side note, one thing I love about the play is the description:

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We know exactly what world Mama Shirl inhabits just from reading that description.

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Oscar and Isaac almost get into trouble and relate the situation to Rachel.

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Oh look! Short Fatty is getting his prayers answered. 😏

When Rachel mentions they could’ve modified their behavior to avoid a situation, Oscar and Isaac talk to Rachel about the realities of being a young black man in modern America.

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For anyone not familiar with the cases the play references, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri basically for not walking on the sidewalk being African-American.

Philando Castille was killed in Minnesota (that place, again) for supposedly having the “same wide-set nose” of a robbery suspect.

Eric Garner was choked to death for selling cigarettes one by one being African-American. It only took the NYPD five years to fire his killer.

Freddie Gray was killed in a Baltimore police van for having a legal knife being African-American.

Isaac and Oscar’s dialogue/reality lesson continues:

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Mostly.

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Naomi goes off on her mother, Mama Shirl, when Mama Shirl mentions Rachel’s early plan to be a doctor and things didn’t quite turn out like that.

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Naomi does a good job of upending religious hypocrisy, where people can pick and choose what God’s plan is and what’s someone just screwing up.

Rachel relates when Mama Shirl caught her trying a beer.

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There’s some good-natured sibling rivalry between Rachel and Isaac. Isaac is the family member everyone seems to have their hopes pinned on. He’s a college football star and has plans for the NFL. In reality, only 1.5 percent of college players ever make an NFL roster.

Aliquippa is kinda famous for producing NFL players like Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Ty Law, as well as Darrell Revis.

There is some engaging banter between Rachel and Oscar.

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Another Isaac zinger:

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The main thing audiences and readers should know is that Aliquippa was once a small, yet economically robust steel mill town. This lasted for most of the 20th Century until the mill finally closed in 1984. A quick look at the town’s historical population can give some clues:

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From here.

When your town has 1/3 of the population it had 90 years ago, your town might be in trouble.

To get a more visual picture of what ails Aliquippa, check out this photo essay from 2015.

In more positive news, Aliquippa’s government recently released a blight-to-bright plan.

But it’s still a place where a school board member is accused of threatening to stab a couple seventh graders.

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One cool theatrical device the play uses is the freezing of time. Naomi is asking to borrow money from her daughter. The play uses this instance to freeze action and time.

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Rachel is then free to comment on the situation.

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Later, Mama Shirl’s sancto self gets served by Naomi.

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Maybe this limbo that Naomi lives in isn’t entirely her own doing. Naomi isn’t done unloading on Mama Shirl.

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As much as the play explores the dynamics that made Naomi the woman she is today, the present-day takes over. Oscar has something horrible to report.

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Isaac caught a stray bullet.

From tragedy, comes some type of positivity. Several family members are able to move forward with the community center they were planning. Rachel also makes peace with Naomi and is almost set to go to the West Coast for school. Naomi is kinda, sorta closer to making peace with Mama Shirl.

Some really cool things about this play:

  1. Theatricality. Already mentioned above, the play plays (hehe) with time and memory to create a theatrical experience.
  2. Local flavor aka local color. This is a tradition that hearkens back to writers like Bret Harte, Frances E.W. Harper and Charles W. Chesnutt, where a work of literature is rooted in a specific time, place and culture. In Valentine’s work, we inhabit the world of a family in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The play even uses local terminology such as “Quip” “jitney” and  “PennDot.” We can feel life in the dying steel town. This is reminiscent also of the work of Stacey Bryan, Yolanda Mendiveles and Benjamin Gonzales, all of whom have been featured on this blog.
  3. Issues of the day. Not only does the play address racism, the Rust Belt, and police violence, but there is a gender role subplot regarding Tamir, who likes his hair long and dresses up like a cowgirl.

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This causes some conflict among the different women in Tamir’s life. He also plays with Pony Princesses.

4. Uniqueness. Slice-of-life dramas depicting African American families are sorely lacking on the American stage. This would be welcome relief from the bazillionth community college production of The Mousetrap.

Ms. Valentine was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

1. How did you start playwriting?  

I have always been a fan of theater and have taught many plays to my students, but it was not until I applied to Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program that I considered delving into dramatic writing.  I am primarily (and have always thought of myself as) a poet. However, I decided that if I was going to get direct instruction in craft, I wanted to take a shot with a new genre.

2. What are your influences? 

My biggest influences are my experience as a Black woman and mother and the fact that for too long the narrative of those who are usually marginalized, silenced, or ignored (BIPOC, the LGBTQIA community, women, etc.) has been crafted and told by others.  There is a short allegory that I find striking in relation to this.

The young boy went to his grandfather and said, “Grandfather, is it true that the lion is the king of the jungle?”

“Yes,” said the old man, “but why do you ask?”

“Well,” said the boy, “in all the stories that I read and even in the ones I hear, man will always defeat the lion. So, how can this be true?”

The old man looked his grandson in the eyes and said, “It will always be that way, my son, until the lion tells the story.”

Moving beyond what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of the Single Story” is crucial.

In terms of writing, I am definitely influenced by August Wilson, whose plays celebrated the everyday experiences of Black people and were all set in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. I am from Aliquippa, a small city just north of Pittsburgh, so Wilson has long been on my radar.  Other playwrights I consider to be influential are Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morrisseau, Kirsten Greenidge, Henrik Ibsen, and Shakespeare.

3. What is your most memorable production and why? 

(In terms of my play, Aliquippa, I have had several readings, and all of them are memorable, but two stand out in particular. When I first finished the script, we had a closed reading for which my sister, daughter, son, nephew, and I provided the cast. It was incredibly poignant for me to hear my words brought to life by these people who are so important to me. The other one was a larger reading with actors we’d cast.  Watching the audience respond to this story and these characters convinced me that this play was one to which anyone could connect.)

I worked on a production of Clybourne Park as the Dramaturg and Assistant Director for Toy Boat Theatre in conjunction with the University of Washington Tacoma. This was a memorable experience because the cast and production team gelled as a family. Rehearsals were full of levity and intensity in equal measure. I love to laugh.  There were no egos or prima donna moments. The most important thing was bringing the story to the stage. There are very dark comedic elements that resonated with many in the audience, in particular those of us who have long had to keep our sense of humor to get through trying times. Also, because the play deals with themes of dislocation and gentrification, there were parallels for what is happening in Tacoma right now.

4. What is your least memorable production and why?  

The one that hasn’t happened yet! I have been submitting Aliquippa to festivals and calls for plays, but I have not yet had any success. So many venues require a script to be submitted by an agent, so that leaves me out of the running.

5. What’s your funniest theatre story?   

I co-adapted the script of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with Marilyn Bennett and served as Assistant Director for the production, which was staged as a part of Tacoma Little Theatre’s 100th season.  After the show on opening night, a member of the Board of Directors said a few words to the audience, then invited Marilyn to speak, and after that called me forward. I am fairly shy and also autistic, so not only was I mortified but also the first words out of my mouth were, “Well, this is mortifying.” In retrospect, I think it’s pretty funny, but at the time I felt a little bad when I saw the look on the board member’s face at my pronouncement.

6. What are your writing habits like?    

I wish that I could say that I write in the morning during my almost two-hour commute to work and again on the trip home. I take the train or bus for that specific purpose (and also to avoid the stress of navigating the traffic on I-5). I’m not a morning person, though, so I am barely able to form coherent thoughts that early, and in the evening, after teaching all day, I usually just pull up a game on my phone and listen to an audiobook until I get home.  My best writing time is late at night. I curl up in my giant, cushy armchair and type away. Unfortunately, I have to go to bed pretty early, so I have been scheduling writing dates with friends and my sister because being around other creatives always gives me the boost I need to write.

7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?  

The best advice that I have been given was from one of my advisors at Goddard, Darrah Cloud, who also happens to be a poet and playwright. After reading my very first attempt at starting Aliquippa, Darrah told me, “Stop writing this as if it’s fiction.  It’s not. Write it like poetry.” What I took away from that was to listen to the voices of the characters and let them tell the story that they were trying to tell.

8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention? 

Playwrights Christina Anderson (How to Catch Creation), Kirsten Greenidge (Luck of the Irish), and Donte Felder, who has produced several plays in the Seattle area. His next production, Blerds Comics and Cafe, which leans into speculative fiction and explores the nuances of the comic book world, gun control, and race, will premiere in the fall of 2021.

9. What are common themes in your work?  

Family and familial love are big themes for me, whether related to actual family units or the found families that we create for ourselves. I am somewhat fixated on the collective loss and grief that impacts the physical, emotional, and mental health of Black people, as well as the intersectionality of various identities (race, gender, queerness, neurodiversity, class).

10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out? 

I wish I knew more about the ways to get a play from page to stage and which options for getting plays out into the world were the best ways.

11. How autobiographical is Aliquippa?

While it takes place in my hometown, Aliquippa is not autobiographical at all.  At the same time, I can recognize aspects of myself – often amplified – in each character: Naomi’s fierce love for her family, Rachel’s tendency toward seeing things in black and white, Mama Shirl’s faith, Isaac’s optimism, Oscar’s loyalty, and Tamir’s naive pragmatism.

12. What have the audience reactions to Aliquippa been like?

The response has been positive! While on paper, Tacoma is similar to Pittsburgh demographically, the ethos of the Pacific Northwest is vastly different from that Western Pennsylvania, so I was wary of what the response would be as I’ve workshopped it here, because I did and do not want it to be misunderstood. However, the feedback of audience members from a variety of backgrounds has been that they can relate to these characters despite what are – at times – quite different circumstances, and that is gratifying.

13.  What have been the biggest obstacles in getting Aliquippa a full production?

Three things come to mind: time, money, and connections, with time being the biggest of the three obstacles. I am a full time teacher in Seattle, and I live in Tacoma. I’ve already talked about my gnarly commute. I’d love to have the time to focus on making the connections and obtaining the funds to find the right space, fill out the roster of actors and production team, compensate those involved, market, etc. Chevi Chung of empathos company is doing a phenomenal job shepherding me through various stages of the process, but my ability to make progress is hampered by only having fits and starts of time.

14. Aliquippa has some themes and a character name in common with Angelina Weld Grimké’s play Rachel. Are there any connections between the two? 

It’s interesting that you mention this play because I did not have any familiarity with it until one of my students did a presentation on Angelina Weld Grimké and Rachel just a few months ago. While I have not read the play myself, I do not feel as if they are that similar based on what I know of Rachel. Both of my thesis advisors made comparisons to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, and I am incredibly humbled to have Aliquippa even mentioned in the same sentence as Raisin.  “Lydia Valentine has written a tour-de-force family play that rivals Raisin in the complexity of its characters, the pain of its situation, and the beauty of the writing. I do not make that comparison lightly. Hansberry is a hero of American letters, and I see the same potential in Lydia to write people onto the stage from whom we have not heard before, and to make the most seemingly mundane conflicts central and epic.”- Darrah Cloud

15.    What are you currently working on?

I have two new plays I am working on concurrently. One explores the experience of being a black autistic woman, and the other is a one-act centering on a found family of three socially awkward, female or gender queer superheroes.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Lydia! I think we’d all love a play about socially awkward, gender queer superheroes.

To connect with Lydia, you can follow her on Twitter. If you have access to the New Play Exchange, her play is available to read there.

Thanks for ready and we’ll catch you in a couple of days forMonologue Monday!

Dude Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

William Edgar Easton

William Edgar Easton came from five generations of human rights activists. His paternal ancestors had served in the American Revolution and his maternal ancestors served in the Haitian Revolution. He had African, European and Native American (Wampanoag) ancestry. His skin color was light enough to pass as white, yet he always identified as African-American.

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Our playwright hero, circa 1918.

Much like Angelina Weld Grimké, Easton had some illustrious ancestors and was brought up partially in Massachusetts.

As previously stated, he was the fifth generation in a line of activists – let’s just check in and see who some of those were:

James Easton (1754-1830)

William Edgar’s great-granduncle [great-grandfather’s brother]. Of Wampanoag and African descent.

He fought in American Revolution, worked as a blacksmith, ran his own foundry for over 20 years, opened an academic and vocational school for African-Americans and seemed to have a hobby of using sit-ins to integrate churches. Seriously, throughout his adult life he and his family tried to integrate the segregated congregations to which they belonged.

It seems nearly all of James’ children took up his activist ways, most prominently…

Hosea Easton (1799-1837) was a minister, abolitionist, author and human rights activist.

Next in line is James’ grandson…

Benjamin F. Roberts (1815-1881) who was a printer, publisher, writer and activist. Is greatest claim to fame is pursuing Roberts v. Boston – he sued the city of Boston because of its “seperate but equal” schooling system. Despite the involvement of lawyer (and soon-to-be senator) Charles Sumner and lawyer Robert Morris, Roberts sadly lost the case. The case would be cited in US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 in which “seperate but equal” was enshrined in law.

Octave Oliviers was an ancestor of Easton’s mother Marie Leggett. I couldn’t find out much about him except he was a general in Haïti’s revolution.

Easton’s mother was born in New Orleans, of Haïtian parents.

There are other family members who contributed much, but it’s time to skip to our playwright, William Edgar Easton, great-grandson of Moses Easton (Revolutionary War vet and brother to James Easton).

His life:

He was born in Boston. He did a BUNCH of stuff in his life. Let’s play a game – What DIDN’T William Edgar Easton Do in Life?  Among the following facts, Mr. Easton didn’t do one of them. What was it?

  1. Attended St. Joseph’s Seminary in Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
  2. Taught school in Austin, Texas.
  3. Edited The Texas Blad newspaper (cool name).
  4. President of the Colored State Press Association
  5. Chairman of the Travis County (TX) Republican Party
  6. Assistant Secretary of the Republican (Texas) State Central Committee
  7. Secretary of the Republican (Texas) State Central Committee
  8. Storekeeper at the US Customs House in Galveston
  9. Desk clerk at the San Antonio Police Department
  10. Accountant
  11. Tax collector
  12. Correspondant for the New Age
  13. Speechwriter for at least two governors of California
  14. Speaker for the War Department during WW1
  15. Supervising custodian for all state offices in LA
  16. Clerk for the California Bureau of Purchases
  17. Governor of Idaho

If you picked 17, you would be correct. Yep, never governed the Gem State.

The plays:

Haïti sent a delegation to to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition  in Chicago (the one that gave us a famous serial killer).

They asked Frederick Douglass to represent Haïti, which is awesome. Douglass had previously been US Minister to Haïti. And an all-around badass.

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The Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Expsosition of 1893.

In 1893, the post-Civil War rights gains for African Americans were being curtailed. Despite being a Haïtian exhibit, the pavilion attracted many African Americans who probably weren’t into the human zoo-like aspects of, say, The Dahomey Village exhibit.

Easton wrote the play Dessalines, a dramatic tale : a single chapter from Haiti’s history for the 1893 Exposition. The play was performed in Chicago, but not exactly at the Haïtian exhibit.

Now we must delve a bit into Haïtian history…

Haïti was a slave colony run raped by the French. The export was sugar cane. Eventually the slaves found a way to rebel and did just that in 1791. Dessalines was one of thousands of soldiers fighting the French. He became a leader, working closely with the famous Haïtian badass Toussaint Louverture. Meanwhile, having its own revolutionary problems, France declared slavery abolished. Then it gets kinda weird. Louverture and Dessalines then joined the French to fight the Spanish and British. Louverture invaded the Spanish side of Hispaniola and freed the slaves there.

But France is tricky and in 1801 Napoleon thought it’d be a grand idea to restore slavery. Louverture was taken prisoner and died in France. Dessalines and his followers defeated the French soldiers and secured Haïtian independence. Oh, and he ordered a massacre of almost all the white people in Haïti (except for the Poles). And he became president and self-proclaimed emperor of Haïti. As such, he reimplemented the plantation ssytem, ostensibly to maintain Haiti’s economy, but the people felt like they had been enslaved again and it wasn’t long before Dessalines was killed, but we’re not quite sure how.

Thus, Dessalines’ legacy is quite mixed. He was a brave patriot and competant leader who led Haïti to victory over the hated French. He also ordered massacres and in a way re-enslaved his people. And proclaimed himself emperor.

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Dessalines on some sweet, sweet 1916 Haitian currency.

This isn’t quite the same guy in the play – let’s take a look!!

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“Oh, France, go count thy victories! I – I, Dessalines will count thy dead.” Illustration from the published play.  Thomas C. Scottron played this role.

 

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Oh…

Cultural note: in the Haïtian Revolution, the dark-skinned Haitians and the mixed-race Haïtians (mulatres) didn’t get along much.

I’ve noticed this seems to happen when the colonizers create a class that isn’t at the top nor is it at the bottom: they tend to be despised by both sides, warranted or not. A similar thing happened to the mixed-race Indos of Indonesia during their revolution.

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So mulatre Flavien is kind of a dick. And Placide is pretty direct about his feelings.

The synopsis:

Flavien being a dick to Placide. Dessalines shows up and takes all the slaves. Mulatre General Rigaud thinks about joining, but remains loyal to France. Dessalines becomes captor to Rigaud’s sister, Clarisse. Dessalines wants to punish the soldiers who tricked Clarisse and were going to abuse her. Clarisse begs him to spare them. Rigaud and Lefebre meet – again about France. Dessalines shows up. They don’t fight. Later Rigaud confronts him about honor. Fight. Clarisse saves everyone. Clarisse prays. Dessalines becomes Catholic. 

Not a shabby plot, but the play is WAY better than the above. The strongest part is truly the dialogue. Easton had a way with words…Flavien is all butthurt over Placide’s insult – he complains to the slaves…

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Flavien isn’t woke.

You may have noticed that Easton chooses to use faux-Elizabethan English. Actually, he is quite good with it. A modern production could try dropping it and see what happens.

Here’s where Dessalines shows up:

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Dessalines does not mess around and Flavien is still a dick.  Dessalines expounds upon his theory that white people are pretty cursed. Imagine this playing in a theatre in Chicago in 1893.

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He has a point or two or more…

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Rigaud: self-aware dickhead. And he was totally a real person. He was a general in the Haïtian Revolution, but it’s hard to be sympathetic when Wikipedia tells you stuff like this:

“André Rigaud was known to have worn a brown-haired wig with straight hair to resemble a white man as closely as possible.”

Rigaud: not woke.

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Do we keep the neo-archaicisms????

Oh, Dessalines’ soldiers don’t believe he could ever like the light-skinned Clarisse:

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And like every other American representation of Haiti, one must include an obligatory voodoo scene.

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But it is the voodoo scene that gives us our most interesting line:

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How is this connected to our plot? Clarisse may become a sacrfice…and even the priestess is spooked by her.

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Well, Petou brings word of Clarisse’s imprisonment to her brother Rigaud, who then tries to choke him.

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And Rigaud tries to act tough.

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The plot, as previously stated, wraps up with a fight between Rigaud and Dessalines…

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And when Clarisse extols the virtues of Catholicism to Dessalines, who recognizes its truth and then ends in chaste love with Clarisse. None of that actually happened.

In fact, the Catholic conversion scene could easily be deleted – it really does feel shoehorned in.

Besides this, I feel Dessalines is ripe for revival, with modifications.

Production history of the play:

The play was first performed at Freiburg’s Opera House in Chicago, September 1893.

Dessalines was portrayed by Professor Thomas C. Scottron, who had a very interesting family. His family/descendants includes actress Edna Louise Scottron (niece), inventor Samuel Scottron (brother) and singer, actress, activist Lena Horne (grandniece) and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (great-grandniece) and Broadway actor Bobby Canavale (great-great grandnephew – probably the only time I’ll ever use that word).

Clarisse was portrayed by famed actress and activist Henrietta Vinton Davis. Davis also directed the production. Another great link here.

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Dig that headstone, via here.
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Henrietta Vinton Davis, probably the most famous African American actress of the day.

Following this performance, the play was published.

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That’s sweet.

The play was revived at Trinity Congregational Church, Pittsburgh  in 1909. This time she directed and played the flower girl and Dominique (one of the Shakespeare-esque buffoon roles).

The other performance of record is at the Fine Arts Theatre in Boston on May 15, 1930.

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From here.

This version featured Granville Stewart as Dessalines and Avon Long as the voodoo priest [it seems the priestess became a priest for this production].

The play had a reading in Brooklyn in 2014.

The published volume has several illustrations – the one featuring Dessalines is earlier. These are the others:

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Then, after a period of nearly 20 years, Easton published Christophe; a tragedy in prose of imperial Haiti.

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The author actually made his own synopsis of the play:

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Now it’s not a bad play, but even the synopsis is where things start to falter. There are some things in the synopsis that aren’t even in the play. Not a good sign.

And we must jump back into Haïtian history a bit…

Much like Dessalines, Henri-Christophe had been a general in the Haitian Revolution. Of interest to Americans, he may have served in the American Revolution as a drummer boy with the French at the failed Siege of Savannah in 1778.

He was a harsh general in a harsh time…from Wikipedia:

On 6 April 1805, having gathered all his troops, General Christophe took all male prisoners to the local cemetery and proceeded to slit their throats, among them Presbyter Vásquez and 20 more priests.

He was involved in the conspiracy to kill Dessalines and when he proclaimed himself emperor, he went all in:

“Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.” 

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Ego much? A German painter at the imperial court did this…

This isn’t quite the Henri-Christophe that appears in the play.

In real-life, Christophe shot himself in the head with a silver bullet [insert werewolf joke here]. In the play he stabs himself with his sword before stabbing someone else.

The play, in my opinion, is quite pedestrian, especially if we compare it to Dessalines. It seems to lack the vigor inherent in plot – it moves forward simply because it has to.

There’s a lot more French used in this play than in Dessalines.

The pseudo-Shakespearean language has been toned down immensely. There’s a part where some Haitians accuse Dessalines of planning to allow white people to live in Haiti:

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BURN!!!!!

I found the best bits of dialogue deal with the honorable Dessalines and the traitorous Christophe.

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“Puppet of my whims!” <<<< Dessalines pwned Christophe right there.

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Snap.

Sadly, Dessalines dies pretty early in the play. And as previously stated, the play plods… a lot. But the book has illustrations. Let’s check out the Classics Illustrated version:

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The most interesting thing about the play is the part played by Henrietta Vinton Davis – that of Valerie, who dresses up like a murdering vengeful priest!!!!

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If the entire play had been about a woman dressed as a priest killing people, yeah it would be a classic.

It’s still worth a look and maybe other folks will disagree with my assessment.

The play was produced by Miss Davis at the Lenox Casino in New York City with an opening night of March 21, 1912. Fun fact: in 1912 this “casino” was busted for showing stag films.

It is now the location of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz.

Miss Davis played opposite R. Henri Strange as Christophe.

Easton apparently wrote two one-act plays, both with intriguing titles:

Is She a Lady in the Underworld? and Misery in Bohemia.

I can’t find any record of them being performed or published.

There’s also no record of his daughter Athenais becoming a writer as he’d wished for in the introduction to Dessalines.

Thanks for joining us in exploring this playwright’s work and interesting life…

For our other playwrights, please click here.

Join us next week for another thrilling unknown playwright!

Links

The Easton family

William Edgar Easton’s life.

Useful info

Dessalines text

Christophe text

 

 

 

Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Angelina Weld Grimké

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Angelina Weld Grimké was a very unique and interesting writer whose literary output consisted mostly of poetry and a few short stories. She also wrote two full-length plays, one of which was performed and published.

Angelina Weld Grimké wrote from a very personal place, and that personal place was incredibly unique. As another blog described it:

“Her family, within the three preceding generations, included slaveholders and slaves, free black people and white abolitionists.”  

Awkward family reunion jokes aside, that’s one interesting way to start life (we don’t really have any choice as to which family we’re born into – thanks Mom and Dad) and Angelina Weld Grimké continued to live her life in a singular way.

Her uncle was a celebrated pastor and civil rights leader. He co-founded the NAACP. Her father was a lawyer, journalist, diplomat and civil rights leader. On the other hand, her half-uncle was a vicious slave owner who owned and beat her father.

Her mother was a leading lecturer and author on the occult.

Her great-aunts were celebrated abolitionists and feminists.

Her life is more worthy of a book than a blog post.

I thought perhaps a timeline version of her life might suit our purposes. Still, one can see cause and effect…

1752-1819: Judge John Faucheraud Grimké  lives in Charleston, South Carolina and owns hundreds of slaves. He’s of mixed Alsatian and Huguenot descent (the surname was Grimk until an ancestor changed it). He is our playwright hero’s great-grandfather.

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Stern much? Our playwright’s great-grandfather.
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Mary Grimké, our playwright’s great-grandmother.

1792 and 1805: His daughters, the “Grimké Sisters” are born (Sarah and Angelina). They are two of 14 children. They are our playwright’s great-aunts.  

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Stern, but cool. Our badass playwright’s badass great-aunts.

1820s: The Grimke sisters hate slavery. Both move north and become famous abolitionists and feminists. Angelina marries into the Boston Brahmin Weld family, also abolitionists.

They are still so famous that American high school students are forced to make videos pretending to be them:

I guess they lost their Charleston accents…

1840-1850s: Following the death of his wife, their brother Henry Grimké has three children with one of his slaves, Nancy Weston. Henry and Nancy are our playwright’s grandparents.

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Nancy Weston, our playwright hero’s grandmother. From here. Angelina idolized her grandmother.

1852: Henry dies and wills his children to his son Montague, with the provision that they be treated as part of the family. For a few years Nancy lives on her own with the boys.

1857: Montague doesn’t respect his father’s wishes and takes the boys into his house as slaves. He and his wife beat them severely and often. In fact he even takes Archibald to the local police to have them whip him. Montague viewed Archie as a “surly, callow, ungracious, and insulting servant.” Never mind that they were half-brothers. Archie is our playwright’s father.

1861: US Civil War begins.

1862: At age 12, Archie runs away and hides out in Charleston, “emerging at night dressed as a girl.”

1865: US Civil War ends. The three boys go north and enroll in Lincoln University.

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From left, the playwright’s uncle Francis, father Archibald and uncle John as young men.

1868: Angelina Grimké reads an article about Archibald Grimké being such a great student. She visits him and learns about their family connection. She welcomes the boys into her home. The sisters help them as much as possible. Archibald will graduate from Harvard Law School and his brother Francis will graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary

1879: Archibald Grimke marries Sarah Stanley, a white woman from a prominent abolitionist family. Her family opposes the marriage. Information about her isn’t as scarce as Wikipedia pretends.

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Sarah Stanley Grimké, our playwright’s mother.

1880: Their only child, our playwright hero Angelina Weld Grimké is born, named after her great-aunt.

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Sarah Grimké and daughter Angelina, 1880.

Spring 1882: Sarah takes Angelina to Michigan for a visit to her family. This “visit” turns into her keeping Angelina from the child’s father. Archibald writes a bunch of letters begging her to return.

Fall 1882: She returns briefly after Archibald secures an apartment for her in Boston, but quickly leaves again. She probably suffered from mental illness

1882-1887: Angelina is raised by Sarah and her white grandparents in Michigan. Archibald continues to beg her to return to Boston. Even as late as 1886, he is asking her to take their wedding vows seriously. 

Sarah embarks on a career writing and lecturing about astrology, the occult and metaphysical solutions of illness. Often, while travelling, she brings Angelina with her, including to California.

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Sarah Grimké’s book Esoteric Lessons certainly lives up to the title.

Archibald was also a writer. He worked as a columnist for the Boston Herald and eventually founded his own newspaper, The Guardian.

1887: Sarah Grimké puts her seven year-old daughter Angelina on a train from California to Boston. All by herself. 

She’ll sporadically write letters to her daughter, but will never see her again.  The letters have a case of the weirds. 

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Typical letter from a mother to a seven year old. Yep.

Fall 1887: Now living with her father, Angelina begins attending the mostly white Fairmount School in Hyde Park. She may have attended school in California at some point.

February 1891: Angelina writes her first known poem. It is about death. 

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Note her pose and posture. And the fact she’s holding hands with the girl next to her.

May 1893: Angelina publishes a poem in the local newspaper, The Grave in the Corner, about a Union veteran’s grave.  

Her published poetry tended to be about nature, elegies, love in general and later about racial themes and civil rights.

Her unpublished poetry seemed to dwell on death and lesbian love.

1894: Following her father’s move to Washington, DC she attends the all-black M Street School for a school year.

Early 1894: Archbald is appointed American Consul to the Dominican Republic. He leaves Angelina with his brother Francis and sister-in-law in DC. Angelina is rebellious and they fight often.

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Her uncle, Francis Grimké, whom she stayed with and often fought. Her father banished her to Minnesota for her troubles.

At this time, 14 year-old Angelina took several photos in costumes her father had sent her. She then mailed them to her father.

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She looks extremely unhappy. What do you think is going on here?

1895: Due to the impossible situation with her uncle and aunt, Angelina is sent very far away to Carleton Academy in Northfield, Minnesota.

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Via here.

While at Carleton, she receives letters from former classmate  and future playwright Mary Burrill from Washington, DC hinting at a relationship. 

Also, she writes a love letter to a “Mamie” – probably a white classmate but also possibly Burrill back in DC. It includes these lines:

I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, ‘my wife’

Later, Mary Burrill and Angelina would be coworkers at the same school, ironically educating future playwrights!

1897: Attends Cushing Academy in Massachsuetts. Writes a love poem “Rosabel” about one of her teachers.

“Rosabel”

I

Leaves, that whisper, whisper ever,

Listen, listen, pray;

Birds, that twitter, twitter softly,

Do not say me nay;

Winds, that breathe about, upon her,

(Since I do not dare)

Whisper, twitter, breathe unto her

That I find her fair.

II

Rose whose soul unfolds white petaled

Touch her soul rose-white;

Rose whose thoughts unfold gold petaled

Blossom in her sight;

Rose whose heart unfolds red petaled

Quick her slow heart’s stir;

Tell her white, gold, red my love is;

And for her, — for her

Early 1898: Her father returns from the Dominican Republic. 

Fall 1898: She graduates from Girls’ Latin School in Boston.

September 1898: After suffering from rheumatic heart disease most of her life, Angelina’s mother Sarah commits suicide in San Diego.

1902: Graduates from Boston Normal School of Gymnastics [now part of Wellesley College]. 

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Around the time she graduated college.

1902: Begins teaching Physical Education at all-black Armstrong Vocational Training School in Washington, DC. She does not get along with the principal and receives poor evaluations. Her father intervenes several times. She switches to teaching English.

Writes Give Me Your Eyes. It isn’t published in her lifetime.

Give me your eyes.

I do not ask to touch

The hands of you, the mouth of you,

Soft and sweet and fragrant though they be.

No, lift your eyes to mine;

Give me but one last look

Before I step forth forever;

Even though within that moment’s crashing space,

I shall know all of life and death heaven and hell

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Her and her father at about this time.

She also writes Naughty Nan, which may be about herself [Her nickname was Nana]

I

Naughty Nan

If you can

Tell me how your frowns and smiles,

Sudden tears, and naive wiles,

Linked into a glittering band

Follow swiftly hand in hand?

Tell me wayward April-born,

Child of smiles and tears forlorn,

Have you ever felt the smart

Of a lacerated heart?

Are you but a sprite of moods?

Heartless, that fore’er deludes

Tell me naughty Nan?

II

Naughty Nan

If you can

Tell me why you have such eyes

Gleaming when not drooped in sighs

Or when veiled by falling rain?

Haughty oft but never vain

Sometime wistful orbs of brown,

Sometimes blazing in fierce scorn

But eyes that are never free

From some glance of witchery.

Tell me why you have such lips

Tempting me to stolen sips

Tender, drooping, luring, sad,

Laughing, mocking, madly glad,

Tell me naughty Nan?

III

Naughty Nan

If you can

Tell me why you play with me,

Take my heart so prettily

In your dainty, slender, hands,

Bruise its tender, loving, bands?

Tell me why your eyes are brown

Mock and glitter when I frown?

Flitting, luring, little, sprite

In a garb of moods bedight,

Dancing here, and dancing there,

Changeling strange, but ever fair

You have caught me in your snare, —

Naughty Nan.

1903: Angelina starts writing a diary in response to being rejected by [probably] a white man. In it, she talks of suicide. He was a professional American singer based in London. In her diary she mentions that when he sang “My Rosary” for her she made him stop because it caused too much pain. 

*I know several scholars think this was a lesbian affair, but she uses masculine pronouns in the diaries, calls him a man and in a diary entry many years later mentions his name. And she discussed it with her father, who flipped his lid.

This also provides an impetus to her writing and her devotion to her father as the following diary entries indicate:

I am very tired of living. There is nothing to look forward to, only a year of school with a vacation at the end […] There is writing, but the great emptiness of many years before [me] with nothing to look forward to at the end. When people talk about what they are going to do in the future all I think to to myself is ‘What does it all amount to?’ At the end there is only the grave. There is no cure for this everlasting heartache. It never lets up […] I have given up my girlhood. I can never be a girl again. That is gone, and I am an old woman at heart.

Three days later she had this to say:

I have entirely two reasons for living, my dear father and my writing. they must fill my life absolutely. I can never expect to love again. This shall be the beginning, the real beginning of my effort to crush it out forever. […] It almost hurts me to see that my love for you [the man who disappointed her] is nearly as great as that for my father. It hurts me also to see that he has a rival for I do, I do love him so much.

This marked a focus on making her dad happy and writing.

1907: She transfers to the all-black M Street School and teaches English there. She does well there.

1909: Publishes El Beso in the Boston Transcript.

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.

1911: She suffers a broken back in a train wreck in Connecticut. 14 people died, including a lady in Grimké’s car. She must recuperate for months at a home with her father, uncle and his wife. She will suffer chronic health problems after this.

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Grimké survived this. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team were heroes. 100 years later another train crashed at the same place.

1914: Her famous aunt, Charlotte Forten Grimké passes away. She writes this poem for her, published in The Crisis:

Still are there wonders of the dark and day;
The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
So small beneath the stars and moon;
The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
These are, and these will be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Each dawn, while yet the east is veil’d grey,
The birds about her window wake and sing;
And far away, each day, some lark
I know is singing where the grasses swing;
Some robin calls and calls at dark.
These are, and these will be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
But not for eyes that loved them best;
Only her little pansies are all gone,
Some lying softly on her breast.
And flowers will bud and be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, ‘mid other groves:
And to us here, ah! she remains A lovely memory
Until eternity;
She came, she loved, and then she went away.

1916: Grimké begins teaching at Dunbar High School, where future playwright May Miller is her student and former [probably] girlfriend Mary Burrill.

Also 1916: She writes an anti-lynching play, Rachel, that is produced and published. We’ll talk about this soon.

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Photo from a 1923 publication.

1926: She retires from teaching to take care of her sick father.

1927: Publishes much poetry, including:

An Epitaph on a Living Woman

There were tiny flames in her eyes,

Her mouth was a flame,

And her flesh. . . . . . .

Now she is ashes.

1930: Her father dies. Angelina quickly leaves the DC house for New York City and never publishes any new writing again. Scholars have pointed out that the death of her father seemed to rob her of the will to write as well as to live.

1955: She was interviewed by Katherine DuPre Lumpkin about her famous family for a book.

1958: Angelina Weld Grimké passes away, having spent nearly 30 years as a recluse.

Like I said, a blog post won’t do her justice.

Now, on to Rachel. 

The plot concerns the humble Loving family. They live up North and consist of Ma Loving, her teenaged daughter Rachel and teenaged son Tom. Through incidents in the plot we discover what happened to their father and brother ten years before.

In the course of the story the family adopts a neighbor boy. A young man courts harasses comes on strong to Rachel. 

There is much discussion about race and racism and American society. Rachel gets snubbed by a supposed friend who is white. The young boy they take in gets called the n-word and harassed and Rachel comes to a dread realization at the end. 

The play was specifically written in response to the NAACP’s call for scripts in response to the overwhelming success of proto-Nazifest film Birth of a Nation (which was, itself, a successful play). The fact her father was national vice-president of the NAACP and local Washington, DC president may have played a part. 

The absolute most impressive, yet painfully sad, aspect of the play is that despite being written in 1916, it may as well be set in 2019 America. 

As the son Tom observes:

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For those unaware of voter supression in the US, start here.

Or as Tom’s older buddy Strong remarks:

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And as Rachel points out…

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She’s talking about the prospect of lynching here, which still exists in America, albeit in an even more nefarious form.

One common criticism of Rachel is that the language is stilted or speechy,

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“Her conversation with her mother […] feels stilted, the anecdotes they share rarely of much note.”

But these reviews seem to forget we’re dealing with the author of some badass and powerfully vivid poetry….true, the play may be “speechy” – but the good type of speechy.

Rachel begins the play loaded with optimism. She totally wants to be a mother and loves children.

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Interesting thread from the Biblical story of Mary to 1916 Rachel (who, incidentally has a a Biblical name).

She particularly loves “black and brown babies”:

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Compare this to how Rachel evolves:

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Remember, Grimké herself made a similar vow albeit in different circumstances.

Going from Rachel’s point A to Point B constitutes much of the plot. We’ll explore this in a minute…but first, another reason to commend this play:

Rachel is such a willful, strong and yet conflicted character. It would be a great role for any actress. 

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Rachel Guy Moore in the original production of Rachel in 1916. Note those flowers.
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2016 Kansas City production.

She works well with children, plus the kids are awfully sweet:

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She provides counseling to a mother whose child has become withdrawn due to racism at her school.

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Rachel and Ma. London production.
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From a 2016 Kansas City production.
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A Maine production.

The mother enquires about the school Rachel attended and explains her daughter’s situation:

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From a 2016 Kansas City production.

Rachel does indeed brag up the school – Grimké herself usually attended mostly white schools.

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Those plot points I mentioned? Pretty much all of them have to do with Rachel seeing the effects of racism on her family in particular and African-Americans in general.

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Mrs. Lane and Rachel, London production.

Rachel learns what happened to her father and brother:

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Father and brother dying on the same day does sound a little..

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Damn. And by Christians, too. But then the mom gives the reason:

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Rachel and John Strong. London production.

The father had been a newspaper editor (just like Grimké’s own father) and had been threatened, simply because he printed the truth (about the first murder) and then he and his son were killed. Remember how I mentioned this may as well be 2019? There’s a reason Time magazine picked journalists as “People of the Year” (Hint: being good journalists can be lethal)

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Rachel and Jimmy. London production.

Remember that child Rachel adopted after his parents passed away? She got to have this conversation with them:

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That conversation.

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2016 Kansas City production.

Rachel has also attracted the male gaze:

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She handles it.

Other characterization is just as rich. Rachel’s brother Tom, the football hero of the show.

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Quarterbacking comes with dangers beyond CTE, though.

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Oh.

Tom can dish it out. When he learns what really happened to his father and brother, well…

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Great emotion.

Much like his sister, Tom learns how 2019 1916 America really works.

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“The scum of the earth shall succeed.”

Several critics have looked for autobiographical elements in the play – and they seem to be there. Rachel is “brown” (i.e. lighter complected), she and her family are highly educated. The father was a journalist who fought bigotry. She had a failed romance. The mother suffers from rheumatism, as did Grimké’s. And she foreswore any chance of having children.

Here’s a talented actress using some lines from Rachel as a monologue on Youtube.

Another aspect that appears obvious is mental illness. In fact Grimké herself refers to Rachel as a “highly-strung girl” in a piece defending the play.

Mental health in America remains a stigma for both white and black Americans. Not only do African Americans face more stressors, but also have fewer options for treatement.

Given Grimké’s unique family history – the unusually close relationship with her father, the remarks from others that she seemed unhappy often, her mother’s suicide and claims from others that she was paranoid – it makes sense that the hero of the tale is, well, highly strung.

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Killing as a kindness.

Earlier, her mother had found her unconscious after having apparently violently attacked the flowers John Strong had given her.

Rachel goes on…

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In all fairness, being called “little girl” when you’re 22 might  be a trigger.

So Rachel breaks down cursing God, hearing her children in her sleep and laughing uncontrollably. Yeah.

NOW, on the other hand…she recently learned her father and brother were victims of nice white Christians – and now nice white Christians are harassing her adopted child. And others. WHO could hold it together???

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Cast of a Brooklyn production.

Rachel shares an interesting story with young Jimmy. This would make for a great monologue.

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2016 Kansas City production.

Grimké takes her poet’s pen to even the description. Who here is sick of seeing submission requirements that look like this?

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Nobody told Grimké about all this minimalism, or if they did, she ignored it to death –  so we get some beautiful descriptions such as:

image

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Pictured above: Grimké’s middle finger to 21st century theatrical minimalism.

If you haven’t noticed, their house has some famous paintings. Let’s take a look:

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Assuming she meant The Gleaners, since The Reapers doesn’t exist, although Millet did paint The Reaper.
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This is The Reaper by Millet. Fear him.
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Burne-Jones‘ Golden Stairs. Welcome to the pre-Raphaelite world. I’d say this is the opposite of “simply framed” (as in the play). And did you know there’s a blog all about frames???
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Raphael‘s Sistine Madonna.

I like that the play uses real paintings. The second act presents us with different paintings.

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[Insert Man with a Hoe joke here]
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Let’s talk about Watts’ Hope, or rather what Wikipedia has to say about it:

“As cheap reproductions of Hope, and from 1908 high-quality prints, began to circulate in large quantities, it became a widely popular image. President Theodore Roosevelt displayed a copy at his Sagamore Hill home in New York; reproductions circulated worldwide; and a 1922 film depicted Watts’s creation of the painting and an imagined story behind it.”

…Hope remained influential. Martin Luther King Jr. based a 1959 sermon, now known as Shattered Dreams, on the theme of the painting, as did Jeremiah Wright in Chicago in 1990. Among the congregation for the latter was the young Barack Obama, who was deeply moved. Obama took “The Audacity of Hope” as the theme of his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, and as the title of his 2006 book; he based his successful 2008 presidential campaign around the theme of “Hope”.”

Interesting.

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Poster for a Maine production.

The play also features music of the era.

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Here’s Mighty Lak a Rose in 1915.

For fun, here’s the Paul Robeson version:

 

And here is Slumber Boat. 

 

And finally here is At Twilight (music only):

 

 

You probably noticed Ethelbert Nevin‘s name pop up a couple of times. It seems Grimké was a bit of a fangirl, as you may recall:

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In this book.

I’m guessing she meant The Rosary by Nevin. This singer was the guy Grimké had fallen in love with. And wow…he could do some damage with just a song. In fact, this song:

“taken a knife and run it all around and, in and out an old unhealed wound.”

Although it seems minor in biographies and such, it’s obvious that Grimké dug Nevin’s music or was at least fond enough of it to have some guy sing it to her and two put two songs in the play.

Another interesting aspect of the play is that it depicts the world of children well:

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Finally, we should see how the play ends…

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The play had a couple of performances in 1916…

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Via here.

The play was published in 1920 and that’s when it gained wider exposure.

Reviews were generally favorable, the main criticisms being that the character of Rachel is a bit extreme and also that the play appears to be promoting “race suicide” since Rachel seems to have given up on black and brown babies.

In fact, Grimké responded to her critics:

“Since it has been understood that ‘Rachel’ preaches race suicide, I would emphasize that that was not my intention. To the contrary, the appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but to the whites.”

She claimed her main purpose was to appeal to white women‘s sense of motherhood and that as mothers, these women would be sympathetic to the play.

Her subsidiary motive was to show white people the “best type of colored people.”

As for the story and characterization in the play, her argument is that Rachel learns or realizes the harsh truth facing African-Americans and has a breakdown “in mind and soul.”

On a rather random note, she even got fan mail from H.G. Wells. (yes, the War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau guy)

He wrote the play was “a most moving one that has stirred me profoundly.”

Grimké wrote a second play, Mara, which only exists in manuscript form. It has been reviewed extensively by writers who’ve gone through the Grimké papers at Howard University. I haven’t, so I can’t rightly analyze it. It is set in the South, maintains the theme of lynching but also has a very close daughter-father relationship. Some readers have said it is better than Rachel.

Since Hull’s rediscovery of Grimké’s works about 40 years ago, there has been much scholarship as well as several productions of Rachel. 

Grimké’s reputation and renown rest mostly on her incredible poetry, which I encourage you to seek out. It really is good. Here’s one of her more famous ones:

Tenebris

There is a tree, by day,

That, at night,

Has a shadow,

A hand huge and black,

With fingers long and black.

All through the dark,

Against the white man’s house,

In the little wind,

The black hand plucks and plucks

At the bricks.

The bricks are the color of blood and very small.

Is it a black hand,

Or is it a shadow?

We’ll see what we can cover in the link dump after this student video based on one of her poems:

Her life

(I used many of these in the research)

Hull’s groundbreaking book.

Honey’s excellent follow-up.

Beemyn’s smasterful study.

Her poems

57 poems right here.

Her short stories

The Closing Door

Collected writings

Her plays

Rachel, full text

History of the play.

Production at the University of Kansas.

Another review.

London production, 2014.

Review.

Brooklyn production

Review.

Review.

Review.

Another review.

Video about a Maine production.

Mara, and the difficulties of studying an unpublished work

Scholarly work

A good list of academic studies of Grimké’s work

Her family (use these as jumping off points for more study)

Her great-aunts Sarah and Sarah’s writing and Angelina and Angelina’s writing.

Her uncle and his writing.

Her mother and her writing.

Her father and his writing.

Her aunt (by marriage) and her writing.

Even her slave-owning great-grandfather’s writing .

A distant relative’s WordPress site.

BONUS POEM! Congratulations, you made it to the end of the longest post on this blog!!! You get a happy poem from Angelina Weld Grimké!!!

May

May, thou lovely month of spring!

As a fairy thou com’st dancing,

Sweetness rests upon thy brow,

Smiles upon thy face are glancing,

Angel hands have thee caressed,

Chirrup birds to thee in bowers,

Heaven thy gentle head hath blest;

Underneath thy quiet breast

Softly sleep thy tender flowers.

Every day thou smilest brightly,

Till thou seest has come thy day,

Then, with longing eyes turned backward,

Sighing low, thou steal’st away.

For a list of all our other playwrights, click here.

 

Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

  If I had known
Two years ago how drear this life should be,
And crowd upon itself all strangely sad,
Mayhap another song would burst from out my lips,
Overflowing with the happiness of future hopes;
Mayhap another throb than that of joy.
Have stirred my soul into its inmost depths,
           If I had known.

  If I had known,
Two years ago the impotence of love,
The vainness of a kiss, how barren a caress,
Mayhap my soul to higher things have soarn,
Nor clung to earthly loves and tender dreams,
But ever up aloft into the blue empyrean,
And there to master all the world of mind,
            If I had known.

If I Had Known” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, published at age 20.

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Our poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, journalist, teacher, activist and hero. Via here.

This week’s subject is quite renowned. Many studies of her life have been done and are readily available online.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight unknown playwrights and we’ll look at Mrs. Dunbar-Nelson as a playwright but also in regards to her other work as it seems fit.

She was born Alice Ruth Moore in 1875 in New Orleans. Her mother was a seamstress and former slave and her father was a white sailor. She grew up in the Creole culture of New Orleans.

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Because a license plate totally makes up for generations of discrimination. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Moore was able to graduate college in an era when almost no Americans even attended college:

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College graduation rates. Note the close proximity to “zero” in 1900. Dunbar-Nelson graduated from college in 1892 at the age of 16!!!
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People of African descent were pretty close to zero college graduation rate in 1900. Dunbar-Nelson beat the odds into a bloody mangled pulp.

For the record, she graduated from the HBCU Straight University (now part of Dillard University).

She published her first book at age 20. At this time, she moved to New York City where she helped found and worked at the White Rose Mission. From Wikipedia:

“Founded to offer shelter and food to destitute migrants,The White Rose Mission also offered job placement for the new arrivals. As African American workers were relegated to jobs as unskilled laborers, conditions and opportunities for African American female workers in New York City were deplorable. The aim of the employment placement service of the White Rose Mission was to furnish skilled, circumspect domestic workers to middle-class homes. The Mission also offered instruction in aspects of housekeeping, such as: cooking, sewing, expert waiting and laundering. Additionally The Mission provided a clean parlor where women who were dues-paying members could entertain callers.

The White Rose Mission evolved to provide social services unavailable to African Americans in New York City such as enrichment classes, child-rearing instructions and a Penny Provident Bank thrift program. The White Rose Mission also maintained a library of works relevant to the history and accomplishments of African and African American people.”

The mission’s library even included a 1773 edition of Phyllis Wheatley‘s poems. I like to think maybe Dunbar-Nelson made that happen.

By the late 1890s, her poems and stories were being regularly published in America, where they caught the interest of famed poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Supposedly he fell in love with her at first poem/photo. They corresponded for two years before finally meeting at which point he proposed to her.

This marriage has been called “tragic” “troubled” – I’ll call a loser a loser. Paul Lawrence Dunbar was a psychopathic rapist and wife beater.

According to the brilliant book about their marriage by Eleanor Alexander ,  Dunbar raped his future wife before the marriage and her physical recovery from that rape took several months. His treatment of her (not surprisingly) remained the same throughout the marriage when he was actually home. He’d leave her home alone for months at a time while he went on recitation tours. The marriage effectively ended when “he beat Alice within an inch of her life.”

In Alice’s own words:

“He came home one night in a beastly condition. I went to him to help him to bed—and he behaved . . . disgracefully. He left that night, and I was ill for weeks with peritonitis brought on by his kicks.”

She never returned to him and only communicated once when she replied “No” to one of many, many letters he sent her begging forgiveness, etc.

Now we must take a time out for a bit.

If you’re in an abusive relationship or even just have questions, please use this site in the US.

In Canada, you can reach out here. And in the UK, here. We love Unknown Playwrghts and despise domestic violence.

In fact, I propose we rename all those high schools named after Paul.  Let’s rename them after his wife…

Though Dunbar-Nelson is chiefly remembered for her exquisite poetry, short stories and journalism, she did write at least three plays.

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“A magazine of cleverness?” More like “You can line the litter box with its smugness.”

The play is so short, you can read it in two pages.

 

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Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar.” She certainly earned that title. Via here.

So the humor is lame corny gentle. I could totally see a modern artistic director rejecting this play for having too many characters in such a short amount of time as well as “We don’t do period pieces.” Then, when being told it’s by the famous Alice Dunbar-Nelson, having a theatregasm and producing it with an era-appropiriate atlas and a prologue explaining the Boer War. Sigh.

It’s doubtful this was ever performed. It seems to be a closet comedy. The magazine, The Smart Set, was on its way to becoming a big deal. It would go on to publish Joyce, Conrad, Yeats, Pound, Strindberg and Fitzgerald.  That Dunbar-Nelson could publish a piece in a magazine targeted at New York City’s elite shows her immense ability.

Between this and her next play, she taught high school, wrote a bunch of short stories and poems which made her relatively famous and she left Dunbar, secretly married Henry Arthur Callis, a prominent doctor and one of the founders of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity , divorced him and married Robert J. Nelson. And had a few girlfriends.

Among the women Dunbar-Nelson would have relationships with in her life were Edwina B. Kruse, the principal of the high school where she taught, artist Helene London and journalist/activist Fay Jackson Robinson.

Despite her journalism being geared towards black readers, her fiction and poetry largely avoided discussion of race. As the great Gloria T. Hull puts it:

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Please buy/read the entire book here.

I’m pretty sure explicitly racial content in her fiction and poetry would’ve hampered her publication chances for a larger (i.e. white) audience.

This changed around the time of her last marriage where she began to explicitly write about race quite often.

One interesting work she composed was An Hawaiian Idyll, a full-length operetta. This script was never published, but two documents related to it are in her papers at the University of Delaware.

The plot is loosely inspired by the sad fate of Hawaiian Princess Ka’iulani

For those of you not familiar with her story, it’s tied up with Hawaii’s story, namely the monarchy was overthrown by a missionary kid and annexed by the Americans. Then the princess died, of rheumatism.

In the play, the plot is similar, but the setting has been re-imagined to serve Dunbar-Nelson’s purpose: as an allegory for “Africans’ loss of culture and identity in the Americas.”

In the play, “Kaiulani” is sent abraod to be educated, ends up in San Francisco where she learns her mom has been overthrown and rushes home to save the day where she restores Hawaiian sovereignty and the monarchy. None of that happened. Some interesting postmodern alternate history there.

As far as we know, the play was performed only once, at the high school where the author taught. The play would’ve been performed by an all-African American cast.

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Brief snippet via The Crisis. February 1917.The “native instruments” were directed by Conwell Banton who had his own career of awesomeness.

Here is an interesting analysis of what little is known of the operetta.

And thus we move on to 1918 and The Crisis, the magazine put out by the NAACP. Shortly before this this time editor W.E.B. Du Bois was taking the magazine in a radical (for then) direction, even publishing a photo of the lynching of Jesse Washington. WARNING: the Wiki article has some graphic photos. He also opposed African Americans supporting the war effort against Germany, though he may have had personal reasons for doing so….

“Du Bois was so taken with some aspects of German social behavior that he retained certain habits from his student days in Berlin for the rest of his life. Prussian social customs gave him, or at least reinforced in him, a certain distinguished bearing or carriage, an apparent aloofness not uncommon among shy people. This trait, augmented by a clipped manner of speech Du Bois acquired in Germany, was often misunderstood as reserve, distance, even haughtiness, and was to characterize Du Bois for the rest of his life. In his physical appearance Du Bois, described later in life as a mandarin, was just following the fashion set by the Kaiser in his style of trimming his hair and beard, as well as his habitual use of a cane and gloves.”

images

Exhibit A: Kaiser Wilhelm II with goofy moustache and eagle taking a dump on his head.

800px-WEB_DuBois_1918

Exhibit B: W.E.B. Du Bois with goofy moustache, but no eagle plus a goatee.

So the US government used the Espionage Act to lean on the paper and Du Bois promised to self-censor, which resulted in the magazine actually supporting the war against Germany.

And that is where Dunbar-Nelson’s play  fits into the puzzle of WWI propoganda. She wrote a play with a purpose and that purpose was to encourage African Americans to totally support America fighting a European war.

The plot is pretty straightforward. A family who lost their father in a lynching and now live in the north have a debate when one of the boy’s is drafted. Various ethnic neighbors chime in and an outside social worker also gives her two cents. It’s interesting and definitely a relic of it’s era. This isn’t the first time this blog has profiled a WWI propoganda play.

Highlights of the play:

  1. The play establishes a place and time and one quite different from the comedy.
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The time was…1918.
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“Brown-skinned” was a term used to distinguish from darker skinned people. Aka “Colorism.
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Lucy of the “pathetic” face. Heck, my face is waaay more pathetic than hers. Illustrations for the play were done by Laura Wheeler.

2.  An early written use of the word “not” to negate the previous statement.  

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This trend was popularized by the Bill & Ted movies and Wayne’s World sketches and movies in the 1990s. Further discussion here.

Lowlights:

It is pure propoganda, as this exchange about Huns Germans commiting some insane atrocities:

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Otherlights:

Man, that brooding character of Chris. He gives zero f*cks about little white babies.

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This Chris is a bit of a badass. And familiar enough with ancient and Biblical history to invoke Moloch.

He even gets to deliver a badass monologue. Warning: archaic racial slur at the end.

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This was such a tough monologue that an actor on Youtube covered it…

See what Dunbar-Nelson did there with the card game metaphor?

And for the ending, which is a relic of its day:

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At least one scholar has suggested Cornelia is the author’s avatar in the story.

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The whole scene, well-illustrated by Laura Wheeler.

Here’s a video of a table read of the play from Chengchi University in Taiwan:

 

The only known full production happened at the high school Dunbar-Howard taught at, where, according to her niece “She produced her play and  we all took parts. The audience loved it…but nobody would publish it.” That niece, Pauline Young, was her aunt’s student at the time and would go on to do great things.

A formidable part of this play is that it may have been written with white readers/audiences in mind. There’s the criticism of how America treats her minorities but also reassurrances that black soldiers and civilians will do their part to stop the “Hun.” In this manner it may very well be worth reviving, as this is an argument that isn’t going away any time soon.

Dunbar-Nelson left a relatively small (two short plays and a full-length operetta) but highly interesting canon of theatre work that deserves rediscovery.

More could be  (and has been) written about Alice Dunbar-Nelson: her life as an LGBT pioneer and icon, as a Creole woman of the 19th Century, as a prominent poet and as a writer in general.

Before the link dump, here is a video of a young student reciting the Dunbar-Nelson poem/lament “I Sit and See” – a commentary on American women’s plight in her era.

 

For all our other playwrights, please check here.

The plays:

Mine Eyes Have Seen (slow load, but worth it)

The Smart Set

An Hawaiian Idyll (analysis of two documents).

The woman:

Her life (with MASSIVE list of links)

Another bio

Her diary.

Her works:

Good place to start.

archive.org

Scholarship regarding Dunbar-Nelson.

Current Playwrights, Female Playwrights, Unknown playwrights

Denise O’Neal

Today we will be profiling a Houston-based playwright who not only comes out swinging when it’s time for her own work but also contributes to the greater playwright community.  

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Denise writes full-lengths and shorts and also directs plays.

Denise O’Neal has lived in Houston for over 20 years and studied Business Finance at the University of Houston.

She hails from Shreveport, LA and was raised in a military family. She caught the playwriting bug at the age of 20 when she assisted in the production of her church’s She believes it was creating papier-mâché props, helping with script edits and splashing all that stage blood on the poor guy playing Jesus that really opened her eyes.

Denise was named a recipient of the Mary McCloud Bethune Award (National Council of Negro Women, 2015) and one of the “100 Creatives” of 2014 by the Houston Press, She has been a writer, director, and producer for over 20 years. She is the executive director of Shabach Enterprise, a non-profit theater company based in Houston, TX and the owner of Watch My Groove Ent., LLC.

She’s also in charge of a really amazing festival that we’ll talk about after the plays.

In 2014 she served as the assistant director for the Pulitzer prize winner Ruined written by Lynn Nottage in its Houston regional premiere. She directed the production of Intimate Apparel, also written by Lynn Nottage in 2015. She is currently a member of the Dramatists Guild, a former board member of Scriptwriters/Houston and is very active in the Houston theatre community.

In this post we’ll look at some of her short plays in detail.

On the Other Side is a funny short with a self-explanatory title: these are all ghosts on the other side.

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Roles for seniors? Check. Psychopath? Check. Someone named Myrtle? Check. Everyone dead? Check. Love this character list.

The humor starts early on this one.

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Ted gets a bit defensive when Myrtle talks about how he died.

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I mean, everyone knows he’s dead, right? Uptight.

Meanwhile, Misty, our resident psychopathic ghost, explains how her husband got cut up into itty-bitty pieces in a bag she’s been lugging around.

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Gotta love any play with the line “A wood chipper, huh?” And gotta love that wood chipper trope,

The play ends how any play involving dead people should end, but I won’t spoil it for you.

Moving on to Sorry, Not Sorry – this also has a fun cast list.

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Basically Ray is a grade-A douche-nugget who is addicted to video games. He thinks he’s gonna have a hot ‘n’ heavy bone-a-thon with gal pal Greta…but he is a contemptuous ass.

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Ray’s kinda dense. 

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Did I mention Ray was a jerk-face? Another man and woman show up and this weirds Ray out to no end, but it turns out they’re not there for sex. A very good twist by O’Neal, but I won’t give it away.

Here’s a video of the cast members of Sorry, Not Sorry talking about the play as well as the night of short plays it was featured in:

 

The final short we’ll cover is Fragile, from Phoenix. Typical trope of a mystery package showing up. And a marriage already on the rocks.

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But as with the other plays, there’s a twist. Said box is not from some sweet young thing in Phoenix…inside the box is…

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Stephanie takes second place to Barry’s burgeoning butterfly collection. 

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Stephanie may need some counseling. Which brings us to the next play.

In addition to writing some off-beat comedy, O’Neal has also penned a full-length play that tackles the demons of addiction as experienced by various men in a treatment program run by a pastor.

A Fly in the Windshield has been relatively successful, and is available from Amazon. O’Neal spent hours asking questions of real men who were involved in treatment programs and used her research to craft this play. Here’s Denise and some of the cast talking about the play.

 

I’ll put a boatload of links about this play below.

A wonderful contribution Denise has made to the playwriting world is the Fade to Black play festival in Houston. This is definitely a labor of love for O’Neal. And provides a unique opportunity for African-American playwrights.

Lack of representation is a real problem. For example, in the 2016-2017 season in Washington, DC, African-American playwrights made up less than 10% of playwrights produced that year. African-Americans make up about 50% of the DC population.  Also, the national population seems to be 12-14% African-American, so DC theatre, you’re sucking on that end, too.

Recently the Dramatists Guild tried to quantify this disparity. I do have issues with how some of the study was conducted, namely the narrow sample size and the fact that they included one of the worst theatres in the world [I’ll keep that theatre’s name to myself for now]. BUT…I totally agree with the point they’re trying to illustrate.

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Pretty much looks like America. From here. 
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This is the breakdown of produced playwrights they give. Pretty much looks like theatre in America. Sigh.
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Apparently if we include Baltimore with DC, the percentage of plays by people of color skyrockets.

On that last statistic, they’re including all people of color and not just African Americans.

Either way, the need for festivals like Fade to Black is strong.

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First stat is a couple years old. Second stat is now. If we ever follow my proposal to ban Shakespeare for a generation, the green could fall to zero.

 

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The first stat is from a couple years ago. Second is now. When it comes to foreigners of color, things are actually equitable between genders. Also, that feeling when you’ve gained 75% but are still under one percent overall.

This is a video promo from 2013.

The festival has been a success. This year’s winners include:

Calley Anderson, Yunina Barbour-Payne, Maya Critchlow, Vincent Terrell Durham, Peter Fields, Ken Green, Lionel Hilliard, Eric C. Jones, Brandon Riley and TJ Young.

Past winners have included: Markietha Ka’Von SIngleton, Angela Y. Rice, Melanie E. Burke, and Angela Batravil.

Here’s a great radio interview with Denise about this year’s festival:

In addition to doing TV and radio interviews, Denise has kindly answered a few questions for us.

1. How did you start playwriting?
I have always loved to write. I started writing poems and essays when I was grade school and since I was heavily involved in my local church, I moved quickly into writing skits for them. When I was 21 or so, I was part of a large Easter Sunday theatre production at our Chapel. The experience was life-changing and instrumental in encouraging me to start writing full-length plays. I have been at it ever since.
 
2. What are your influences?
No particular playwright. Lynn Nottage does great work. August Wilson story of his rise to fame is amazing.
 
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
Fly In The Windshield’s 1st production was a hugely successful milestone for me. After many readings and rewrites, when it was finally mounted on stage, it did extremely well! I had been commissioned to write and direct the piece and endured a lot of hard work, but it was worth it as it received an amazing reception. The play got very positive reviews and was named 2013 Best Original Play by Broadway World. Soon after the closing of the show, the piece was published. 
 
4. What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
Just A Few Feet Away was a piece I loved, but greatly divided my audience: they either loved it completely or hated it completely or didn’t get it or totally got it. The actors loved the work, but it just never took off as well as I’d like. The story was an attempt to weave the separate, disconnected lives of various individuals into a plot revealed just how connected the really are. I learned a hard lesson in remembering the value of being true to yourself because you simply can’t please everyone.     
 
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
Not one of my own work, but one where I was directing A Lesson Before Dying. Apparently a firefly had made its way into the performance studio and wanted to take center stage, but he had bumped into the theater lights and was now dying. Center stage in and out of the audience seating was where he was chose to have his swan dance ushering in the last few moments of his life. Just then, a sympathetic (and annoyed) audience member, decided to use his hat to swat Mr. Firefly out of the scene, but he missed his aim and his hat went flying onto the middle of the floor. Because the audience member wouldn’t dream of leaving his hat on the floor, he decided to retrieve his hat right then and there, firefly and actors be damned. The show went on, but with a bit of distraction. The actors had a good chuckle about that for weeks to come.  
 
6. What are your writing habits like?
I can’t say I have a “method”, but usually when I have a good story line for a play everything else in the world shuts down until it is done. I still get through the tasks of the day, but I am not really truly focused on anything else but the completion of the piece. It consumes me and I inevitably end up writing into the early hours of the morning losing all track of time. It is a wonderful place to be! I write best when a story (or a life lesson) has greatly impacted me or when there is a message I believe the world needs to hear.  
 
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
Write and Rewrite. Do readings and rewrite again. After you’ve put out your best work remain humble and open to suggestions, but learn to know the difference between sound counsel and the simple tongue-wagging of a fool. Try not to let everyone’s opinion about your work bother you. Lastly, do what you can to find your own voice. It can take a lifetime to do it, but it’s worth it. 
 
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Every African-American playwright I know.

9. What are common themes in your work?
The beauty and immense intricacies of the human spirit. I also like story that have a bit of a shock value in its plot.

10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
That theatre is a great outlet, but it’s a lot of work.

11. Where did the idea for The Other Side come from?
I was in a place where I found death and the afterlife particularly fascinating probably because I had been watching a lot of crime television. In keeping with this new found pastime, I wanted to write my own version of events of the back story of a tragic life’s end but I didn’t want to tell a dreary tale so, I made it funny. Aside from the excessive amount of television I was watching, the story might have come from the fact that I often lament about things I feel could be done better if they were done “my” way to begin with (just kidding).
 
12. What have been the most rewarding aspects of the Fade to Black Fest?
It is hard to explain how personally rewarding this project is. It does so many great things for the underrepresented African-American playwright and the Houston community. We are now in our 7th year and are growing stronger every year. We are highly anticipated and respected among theatre enthusiast around the world. If I had to say what is most rewarding is the sense of validation and recognition we provide for African-American playwrights. We are also putting Houston on the map in this arena because it had never been done in the history of the city.
 
13. What advice do you have for writers who want a strong twist in their play or story?
I would just say go wild. A good playwright should have command of a vibrant imagination. Create an outline of various scenarios and pick the one you can sell the best. There is nothing worse than a poorly executed twist. Or you can lay the project down until some spectacular revelation comes to mind.
 
14. How is writing someone else’s story (like “Fly”) different from writing your own (like “The Other Side”)?
From my side, there is no difference. There’s always a lot of character research and development in every play I write. I’d never hear the end of it if I made it about my own personal life.
 
15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
None come to mind. 

 

Thanks Denise for sharing your time and talent with us!!

For all of our other playwrights, please check here.

About Denise:

Her page at the New Play Exchange.

Profile in the Houston Press.

Theatre Online profile.

Denise’s diecting:

Broadway World interview about directing A Lesson Before Dying.

About Fly in the Windshield:

Interview with Broadway World regarding the play.

Another video interview.

Review

About Fade to Black:

Their homepage

This year’s Facebook event

From 2013

Broadway World piece from 2015

Short plug on Houston TV (you will also learn about dead butt syndrome) 2017

From 2018

More from 2018

Nice review from 2017

Profile from 2015, focusing on a gay-themed entry.