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.

 

Current Playwrights, Dude Playwrights, Unknown playwrights

John Bavoso

This week we’re profiling DC-based playwright John Bavoso!!!

In John’s normal life he is (according to his website) a “marketing professional and social media specialist, John has experience in the advertising, e-commerce, and professional services marketing industries. He’s also a copywriter, blogger, and book and theatre reviewer whose work has appeared on websites like Jezebel.com, Lambda Literary Review, and DC Theatre Scene and in magazines such as the Diplomatic Courier, the G8 Summit Magazine, and Metro Weekly.”

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It’s a fulfilling life. But as we all know, there is no career more thrilling nor more rewarding than that of playwright, and that’s what we get to talk about today!

We’ll look at two short plays and the draft of a full-length play he has.

The first play is called The Morning After the Fall and concerns a young man (Adam) who, after tasting the forbidden fruit (Eve), decides to vacate Eden forever – but first he’s gotta let his boyfriend Steve know.

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Production in Queensland.
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Beware, heterosexuality! Bavoso tends to open his plays with quotes.

This play has a lot going for it.

First, of course, is the Biblical allegory. One can never have enough Biblical allegory in LGBTQ-themed plays.

Second, the plot. Bavoso takes a well-known story (the Garden of Eden and “Fall of man” ) and spins it in an entirely new direction.

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Welcome to the world of the fig leaf.

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I am fig leaf, hear me roar!

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This makes an interesting, yet obvious point about all relationships: either it’ll last or it won’t. And obviously Steve had this in the back of his mind. And with good foresight.

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I also hate people who keep saying they’re sorry. This injects some reality into a modern-day “Biblical” story – one character sees things as completely clear and the other is well, quite clueless.

The plot thickens:

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Ah, yes. The siren call of heterosexuality has reached Adam. And Steve puts Adam on the spot:

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And like grown men everywhere, they solve their problems with violence.

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This IS a serious play about a breakup, but also seriously funny.

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BTW “wildebeest” comes from the Afrikaans wildebees (wild ox or cow). But yeah, Afrikaans is probably the most masc language around. So there.

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Masc: the Definition. “Ek is masc.”

So Steve has the duffel bag all ready and….

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I bet Adam is confused right now.

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The sentimentality!!! It’s there, but not overwrought.

Now time to learn about the myth of the Canadian girlfriend in The Home for Retired Canadian Girlfriends. 

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Per usual, the play starts with a quote:

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Poor Tiffany is genuinely confused:

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Still hazy…

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Seems legit.

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She’ll never see Patrick again, because she never did to begin with. But Tiffany suspects she has amnesia. How very wrong she is.

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Jazz hands right here:

 

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Rupert’s vice.

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Tiffany refuses to accept reality. It turns out Rupert was in a similar situation…

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“Similar situation” = subject of a punchline. Rupert offers Tiffany an option, she can needlepoint till the cows come home OR she can be part of an elite strike force of Canadian girlfriends who wreak havoc on the heterocentric world:

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The true story of someone without fingerprints.

Like any good heroine faced with two options, Tiffany makes her own third choice:

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Good for Tiffany!!! Someone else forced her into existence and now she must make her life her own, just like everyone else on this planet. The play has a twist ending that I don’t want to give away, but it’s good.

Now we come to Bavoso’s magnum opus – MLM is for Murder (Or, Your Side Hustle is Killing Us).

The plot concerns Minerva Ross:

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Did ANYONE fit in in their small, Utah hometown? She works and suffers in DC where she lives with her wife.

And there’s an antagonist:

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Full disclosure: I grew up knowing a couple of people who could serve as inspirations for MINERVA and about 1,000 people who could pass as FELICITY.

Now how do Felicity and Minerva become involved in MLM and serial-killing?

So Minerva has a job she hates…with coworkers who belittle podcasting dreams.

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Minerva finds herself through starting a podcast about female serial killers. More on that in a minute. Just in case the audience is curious as to why Minerva is so angry, she explains this to Sienna, her wife.

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Yes, the pain and suffering of growing up as an outsider in Utah was too much for Minerva to even put into words. I’d like to point out that Minerva grew up a Mormon (Latter-day Saint) but quit the church long ago. Minerva’s trauma/hesitancy to speak are understandable given the church’s complicated difficult super-mega-racist history.

Let’s see what Brigham Young, the second prophet of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) church had to say:

“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.”

Journal of Discourses, v. 10, p. 110

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“No seed mixing!” Wet Blanket Brigham strikes again.

This wasn’t some fluke, there’s plenty more where that came from.

The Church operates a lay priesthood for all “worthy” males. From the time of Brigham Young until 1978, the Church enacted a ban on black people holding the priesthood.

The problem with changing dogma is that it really doesn’t change the culture. Despite the current Latter-day Saint (Mormon) leadership’s statements, old (racist) habits die hard and in Utah, they die very hard.

And black people weren’t alone in bearing the brunt of Latter-day Saint racism, Native Americans had their children taken away from them.

I could write a year’s worth of blog posts on the Church’s square dance with racism, so let’s move on….

Just kidding. Because Minerva is also lesbian (woohoo!), we need to factor in Utah/the Church’s complicated difficult psychotically homophobic relationship with dudes who like other dudes and chicks who like other chicks.

This empirical study reached a conclusion that “there are no other factors that reliably predict increases in youth suicide rates during that same time period [2009–2014] except for the percentage of Mormons in a given state.”

Teen suicides have doubled in Utah since 2011 without a significant increase nationally. However, not all of these will be LGBTQ-related, but it is worth further study.

From a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune: “A policy unveiled in November 2015 declares same-sex LDS couples “apostates” and bars their children from Mormon rituals until they are 18 or older.”  

That article’s headline is actually Why does Utah have a high suicide rate? I know why: people cannot live up to impossible ideals, but I guess they need a study to tell them that or something.

I know some Latter-day Saints will read this and say “We’re not all like this” or “Not me” and this is true. Some of my most open-minded friends (especially in the theatre community) are Latter-day Saints. You know who you are and you are deeply appreciated. 

Now back to the story, for reals. Minerva gets hit up by Felicity, who is trying to become an MLM queen, but is like a brain-damaged drone instead. She hits up Minerva on Facebook. They attended high school together like a zillion years ago.

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Sadly, like many victims, Minerva has a much better memory of the past than Felicity, specifically this one:

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Weird. I know someone that actually happened to.

Little does Felicity know that Minerva messes with MLM groups for fun.

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So of course she’s happy to “help” this old (not really a) friend back in Utah. She has also discovered the world of murder podcasts:

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jeffrey dahmer main image
Nordic sex god
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“Hot professor” Even hotter turtleneck. Washing a paper plate? Insane.

This gets Minerva going on her MLM kick. However, Felicity struggles to move product, probably because she’s bugging everyone from her old high school, her church and basically anyone she knows to buy the same crappy clothes.

Her marriage to Jason suffers:

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Felicity needs to push product (and fulfill her husband’s needs) pronto. She visits her MLM idol, Amber, who has a popular Youtube channel and makes barrells of money.

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Not only is Amber rude, condescending and not Mormon, but Felicity learns that the game is rigged. In anger she steals some of Amber’s product…

Meanwhile Minerva is learning the murder podcast game…as she explains to Bianca, Sienna’s coworker:

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Some of you may have wondered about the connection between Mormons (Latter-day Saints) and multilevel marketing.

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Bavoso lets Minerva break it down for us in a slide show:

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If any readers disagree with Minerva’s assessment, feel free to comment.

Minerva wraps up the presentation, though I’d like to add that trust is a big factor in the LDS Church, too. When you have a position or “calling” people will automatically trust you and hucksters and con artists will take advantage of that. As the US Attorney for Utah said:

“We form relationships of trust and when someone starts speaking like we speak or they act like we act, there’s almost an instant trust that is extended to them.  And, so, in Utah we see this affinity fraud—people who exploit their relationships with others to take advantage of them. We see that in Utah. And in Utah it may be because of the predominant religion that allows people to have an instant trust extended to them that then they take advantage of and exploit,”

After Felicity’s dust-up with Amber, Utah’s Dixie gets littered with the bodies of MLM dealers…which Minerva kinda notices…

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Felicity wants to not only be the top of the pyramid scheme, but also top of the murder podcasts, which dovetails nicely into Minerva’s hobby career.

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It comes around!!!

I won’t give away the ending, but it ends kinda how you’d imagine a show about a Mormon serial killer boasting a podcast should end.

Seriously, the play is brilliant.

Now, of course, John has written a bunch of other stuff, stuff that has been produced (and posted on Youtube!)

BLIGHT asks the question “Can a home be haunted by the actions of its owners?” It has received stellar reviews.

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Via here.

His short Happy Hour is relevant to the #MeToo movement:

Adam and Steve is about two strangers meeting in an underground bunker while escaping the world.

Olizzia is about two young women who share a vacation to Rio de Janeiro and find love…with one another.

John contributed to Over Her Dead Body, a bluegrass musical based on traditional murder ballads (HELL YEAH!). Other writers were Seth Alcorn, Karen Lange, Kenny Neal, and Brittany Alyse Willis.

 

John was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

1. How did you start playwriting?

I started out reviewing Fringe Festival productions for a local theatre website. After spending several summers watching a wide range of plays with varying levels of quality, I decided to just dive in and write and self-produce my own in 2014. I had, at that point, never studied or worked in theatre at all, let alone playwriting, so I think my ignorance at just what I was undertaking helped me to do it. That production ended up being a blast and getting pretty decent reviews, so I decided to keep working at it—and the rest is history!

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BLIGHT: “That’s a load of work for a two hour play to carry, but Bavoso and his cast make it work by installing their characters with complexity and depth. These are human beings, prone to error and capable of greatness, just like us, and so sympathetic and even sacred.” DC Theatre Scene

2. What are your influences?

Because I’ve never formally studied theatre, I think most of my influences come from pop culture. Most of my favorite TV shows—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, bits of Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre—feature strong women and queer characters and campy, snarky one-liners, and I think that has translated into a lot of what I write. 

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BLIGHT: “Aside from its laughs, which are scattered but sharp, at its core John Bavoso’s Blight is an engagingly original exploration of one of women’s most fraught choices in their childbearing years. Written from an implicitly women’s point of view, it has been imagined with insight and empathy by someone wombless.”  DC Metro Theatre Arts

3. What is your most memorable production and why?

This year, the theatre company I’m a member of in DC, Pinky Swear Productions, did a production of my full-length play, BLIGHT. The director, Ryan Maxwell, and producer, Karen Lange, had been with the play since 2016 when Ryan directed the first workshop, and have helped to develop and champion it ever since. The team for the production was incredible and full of friends (including two actors who had been in the original workshop reading) and it was performed in the same theater the workshop had taken place in, so it felt like it had come full circle. Because it was local, I was able to be there for every rehearsal and so many friends and loved ones had the chance to finally see it for the first time. It will definitely stick with me as one of the best experiences I’ve had in the theatre.

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“One of the fascinating aspects of theater is how it makes you ask yourself questions you have never considered: Would I live in a house where a mass murderer lived? That’s the thought writer John Bavoso plants in the audience’s mind at the start of ‘Blight’… In ‘Blight,’ the word ‘monster’ gets thrown in every direction. But this play reminds us that it’s easy to label people and then dismiss them as enemies. Looking for our common humanity is much harder.” Orlando Sentinel

4. What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]

I guess the 10-minute play that was produced on another continent that I didn’t know was happening until the day it opened, and I never got photos or video from the production… I really only have the director’s word that it even happened in the first place!

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“Among the strengths of Bavoso’s #AREASONABLEAMOUNTOFCAPS is its specificity. The time and location of this play are absolutely integral to understanding the characters and action. This play could only take place when and where Bavoso sets it, which leads to details in the dialogue and characterizations that added so much to my enjoyment.” Steven G. Martin

5. What is your funniest theatre story?

I prefer to stay comfortably backstage, but shortly after I had joined Pinky Swear, we did a “pop-up” performance as a fundraiser. One of our members had written a monologue for a closeted gay guy home from his freshman year of college for Christmas break. For that particular show, we only had straight dudes in the cast and it apparently wasn’t working for this monologue, so I was called upon to perform. After the show, I was mingling with members of the audience, and one woman said, “I was so worried when you walked on stage because you were shaking and your voice was cracking, but then I realized it was all part of your character!” You can probably guess, dear readers, that that was not in fact an acting choice, but a lucky coincidence. Luckily, that was also the last time I was asked to be on stage!

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Did John write a play entitled Homo for Christmas? Of course he did! “The funniest and best directed is “Homo for Christmas” written by John Bavoso… This is a total laugh fest! Ignorance of the facts doesn’t seem to matter in some circles these days, but it does have an unusual reaction in most family gatherings. Will the parents and grandmother accept the new partner of their beloved child? In this farcical production of miswords and misunderstandings, this family takes the prize.” – NoHoArtsDistrict.com

6. What are your writing habits like?

Not great, haha. I have a full-time job and long commute, so I usually don’t manage to write much during the workweek unless I’m really excited about something. In general, the writing comes in bursts—I’ve written entire 10-minute plays and scenes for full-lengths in notebooks and the notes app on my phone on the Metro to or from the office. I’ve started getting up early on Saturday mornings and going to a coffee shop for a few hours to force myself to write, or submit scripts to opportunities, or answer questions for a blog post… 

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“… a compelling look at the ‘old guard’ of the LGBT community’s pitfalls in adopting the language and perspective of its younger members.” — DC Metro Theater Arts

7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?

Don’t be afraid to ask other theatre people questions and for advice. In my experience, this is a pretty generous community, and the benefit of just asking the question far outweighs the fear of sounding dumb.

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

Other than the delightful Bryan Stubbles, of course, I’m going to rep a couple of my best DC playwright friends: Britt A Willis and Natalie Piegari are creating really unique, innovative theatre and everyone should seek out their work. Also, Steven Hayet is a fellow College of William & Mary alum who I’ll get to meet in person at a festival in March—definitely read his writing as well!

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Over Her Dead Body because bluegrass murder musicals are a thing. Over Her Dead Body shows us what it really means when we romanticize violence. It’s both entertaining and important, and haunting in the best possible way.” — DC Theatre Scene

9. What are common themes in your work?

When people ask what kind of plays I write or what my writing style is, I usually jokingly say things like, “lesbians with relationship issues” and “plays about serious topics with lots of jokes in them.” But, really, those descriptions are pretty much totally accurate! 

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

A string of half-completed, abandoned scripts has taught me that I really do need to start a full-length play with a solid outline—I find that knowing where I’m heading makes writing much easier and fun for me.

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Dudes locked up in a bunker. What’s gonna happen? Adam & Steve. “Talk about a roller coaster of a play. Just when you think you know what’s going on, Bavoso yanks the rug out from under your feet. It’s real, it’s genuine, it’s sweet—and then it’s something else entirely. There is so much going on in this play—relationships between men, grieving, isolation, the longing for something great that seems unattainable. A true retelling of the Adam and Eve story, only instead of a red apple, there’s a red button. A pretty brilliant short play that gets more done in ten pages than some plays do in fifty.” — Emily Hageman

11. What was the genesis of After the Fall?

I see what you did there! The inspiration for the piece was the homophobic taunt, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” The first 10-minute play I ever wrote was entitled Adam & Steve, but wasn’t actually about the Eden story. Then, a few years later, I saw a call for 10-minute plays on the theme “The Morning After…” with a queer bent, and I figured what morning after was more impactful than the one following the fall of mankind?! It wasn’t chosen for that festival, but is now finding its own small success (it will be produced in the US and Australia [for the second time!] this coming year), which is neat. It’s actually inspired me to work on a whole collection of queered/reimagined Old Testament stories—we’ll see if I actually follow through with that!

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Kylie and Janet and Robyn and Cher. “Bavoso wrote a hilarious script full of excellent, and excellently terrible, music.” — MD Theatre Guide

12. How does starting with a quote enhance or add to the play or story you’re telling? 

I’m a huge quote nerd—I have several journals filled with hand-written quotes and once, during a period of unemployment, I transcribed them all into a Google spreadsheet to make them searchable by keyword. I get immense (possibly-OCD-related) satisfaction from pairing the perfect quote with a script—I was that student who included one at the beginning of every paper I wrote in college and grad school. On a practical level, I think having the right quote at the beginning of a script helps me stay focused on a succinct distillation of the play’s core themes as I’m writing it. 

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Every terrorist’s favorite Threat Level: Cream. “Also delightful is local playwright John Bavoso’s “Threat Level: Cream,” a droll and twisty tale of two Washingtonians (Chloe Mikala and Jonathan M. Rizzardi) who encounter a suspicious gallon of milk on the Metro.” — The Washington Post

13. What compelled you to write a play about serial killing, Mormons and multi-level marketing? 

This play is really the mashing together of two Internet/pop cultural rabbit holes that I’ve fallen down during the past few years. The first being the insanely popular podcast My Favorite Murder; I wouldn’t consider myself much of a true crime buff, but I got really into this podcast and the online community it spawned. The second is watching the rise and (in progress) fall of the leggings company LuLaRoe—I’ve randomly spent an obscene amount of time watching videos and reading Facebook posts by disgruntled former sellers and customers and this led me to discovering the wider anti-MLM movement, which is how I learned about the connection between Mormons and MLMs. As I was thinking about these two very different topics, it occurred to me that both communities are heavily dominated by women and that mashing these seemingly unrelated obsessions into one play could maybe end up spawning some interesting conversations about feminism, capitalism, and exploitation, so I decided to go for it. I guess we’ll have to see if it resonates with a wider audience of it’s just two niche things that combine to form an entirely-too-niche piece of theatre!

14. MLM is for Murder makes extensive use of emojis. I’ve seen other playwrights use these, too. What has the reception been for your emoji-laden plays vs. your non-emoji plays? What advice do you have about using emojis in a play and/or script? 😂

This is the first play I’ve ever written that includes emoji, so I’ll have to wait and see what the reception is! I showed a good friend an early draft of the script, and his feedback on that scene was, “if you are being honest with yourself, you know that you need many, many, many more emoji represented in these stage directions,” which was totally correct. I’m hoping having an actor speaking the formal names of the emoji will both annoy the audience and make them laugh, which is what seeing them used so aggressively and unironically in real life does to me.

15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.

Do you create excessively long and aggressively themed Spotify playlists for all your plays? Why, yes I do, thanks for asking! I started the playlist for BLIGHT in 2016 and have added to it as recently as this week—it’s now up to almost 7 hours’ worth of songs, some of which have been used as scene transition and pre-curtain/intermission music in both the play’s two productions.

Thanks to John for answering our questions. I hope everyone had fun learning about John and his incredible plays.

Here’s a list of all our other playwrights.

 John Bavoso’s website

His New Play Exchange page

Full-length plays:

BLIGHT

All about BLIGHT.

Reviews

Washington Post review of Blight

Olizzia

All about this play.

Short plays:

#AReasonableAmountofCaps

All about this play.

Adam & Steve

All about this play.

Happy Hour

All about this play.

Homo for Christmas 

All about the play.

A Jumble of Worn Words

All about this play

Kylie and Janet and Robyn and Cher

All about this play.

The Morning After the Fall

All about that play.

Facebook event.

Program.

Over Her Dead Body: A Bluegrass Benediction 

All about this bluegrass murder musical.

Plus One 

All about the play.

Threat Level: Cream

All about this play.