I am a student of William Shakespeare, August Wilson, Sam Shepard and Lorraine Hansberry. Although their styles and subject matters are diverse, what I admire about all of them is that they write as if they are wrestling problems to the ground, as if they thrash around with ideas to make sense of them through their characters. Since they are my teachers, I work to follow their examples.
I have a friend who is a marvelous actor of great depth and range: She is a large, dark-skinned African American woman, with classic African features, who usually gets cast as a mother, a comic side-kick, and a tough customer. Several years ago, however, a white male director cast her as the town beauty. The playwright, also an African American, was unhappy with the casting, feeling that my friend was not "that type." I watched my friend begin to doubt herself and gradually lose confidence in her ability to do the role.
The more I thought about my friend, the more I thought about images of beauty and how African American women get cast. As a former actor, I know all too well what it feels like to be told, "I'm sorry, you're just not right for the role." In my case I was a graduate of N.Y.U. Tisch in the early 1970s who, after years of speech and voice and Shakespeare, sounded "too white" to be cast in the roles available to black women at the time. Despite the fact that I knew this was ridiculous, it hurt. Despite the fact that I had been black all my life and proud of it, the casting gods decided I wasn't "black enough," whatever that meant.
It was the rejection and bruising to my ego that motivated me to begin to write my own plays. My husband, Carl, a former musician, had been telling me to write plays for years. "Musicians compose. Why don't actors write plays?" As I walked away from a New York theatre, after what was to be my last audition, in early spring 1975, I decided I had to write a play for ME.
Rainy Season is a play about African Americans living in West Africa in the 1960s. I was lucky to get a showcase on theatre row in New York in 1980, sponsored by the late Felix Marvin Camillo's group, "The Family." By that time, I had a "real" job and a son, so I hadn't acted for several years. I missed the stage, but I was content with my life and resigned to having given up the thrill of acting forever. I was unprepared for the absolute exhilaration of watching my play, and the role I wrote for myself, performed by other actors. Niamani Mutima's direction was impeccable, and actress Edythe Davis delivered a standing ovation-caliber performance. The audience received the work so warmly that I was hooked. I've been writing plays ever since.
From 1983 to 1987 I wrote a lot of children's plays. Once my family and I relocated to the Washington, D.C., area, I began teaching at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts and creating work for my young students. This culminated in a collection of plays for young performers entitled A Lunch Line: Contemporary Scenes for Contemporary Teens, published by New Plays, Inc., in 1989. By this time I had written two full-length companion pieces for Rainy Season and three to four other adult plays. I had also started teaching acting and playwriting at American University in Washington, D.C. In 1993, Dramatic Publishing published my one-act play, Sunday Dinner. Thanks to the Source Theatre Company, Horizons Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre and Studio Theatre, I had several plays done as staged readings, showcases and productions in the early 1990s.
This brings me back to my sister-actor-friend and her struggle to play the town beauty. It was 1993 and I was burning to write a piece about her situation. I decided to construct a play-within-a-play, to deal directly with casting. Casting is such a major decision-making process, and casting choices make powerful socio-political statements, whether we as artists, educators and theatre administrators want to admit it or not. I decided to investigate the implications of casting in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, since Juliet is one of the world's most famous beauties. What evolved was a one-act play entitled Playing Juliet.
In Playing Juliet, New Vistas, a small biracial theatre company, is trying to rehearse Romeo and Juliet while facing typical hardships of budget, company rivalries and time crunches. However, Georgia, the African American actor playing Juliet, faces an even bigger crisis. Her maintenance man boyfriend, Jimmy, has threatened to leave her if she plays the role. Georgia believes she has been cast in this role against type in order for the director, Georgia's white friend Wendy, to make a politically correct statement. Conflicts about class, race and gender disrupt the rehearsal process. Despite the fact that friendships are severely tested, and the company members fall in and out of love, the play ends with three sets of happy lovers. I was determined to show that actors, indeed anyone, in a bicultural or multicultural group, could work through personal, social, and political issues if they could be honest, respect each other, and commit to the greater task at hand. I did minor rewrites on the piece and put it away for two years.
In the summer of 1996, I was a faculty member of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Four texts had been selected well in advance for intensive study that summer. One was Othello.
It so happened that the country was immersed in the O.J. Simpson murder trial that year. The press and classroom discussions were full of comparisons between Othello/Desdemona and O.J./Nicole. I grew weary and deeply frustrated by the glib comparisons between two pairs of lovers, whom I strongly felt were as different as night and day. I decided to write a piece addressing the paradoxes of Othello.
By this time, Roundhouse Theatre had asked me to submit Playing Juliet for its New Visions playreading series. Since I had already created a biracial theatre company in Playing Juliet, I decided to revisit them in Casting Othello, creating this new piece as a companion one-act to be done in the staged reading. Casting Othello finds the same New Vistas Theatre actors struggling to put on Othello. The major stumbling block is the fact that their star actor has left the title role for greater glory. New Vistas is stuck without an Othello, and the prospects are grim. Georgia is now married to Jimmy, and they are expecting a child. Jimmy has been helping out with carpentry to be near his wife and has come in handy as a blocking stand-in for Othello. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Wendy has been coaching Jimmy to step into the role. When Jimmy gets up the nerve to actually audition, it causes an uproar. Shakespeare's Othello is deconstructed as each actor confronts his/her feelings about race, class, gender and casting once again.
Source Theatre Company produced Casting Othello in 1996 during its annual Washington Theatre Festival, and it won the award for Outstanding New Play. In 1998, Source and the Folger co-produced these plays in the Elizabethan Theatre. I was quite involved with the mounting of Playing Juliet/Casting Othello at the Folger and did significant rewrites so that the play could be staged individually as one-acts or together as a full-length play. I was more than happy now to be the playwright as opposed to the director or an actor.
It was fascinating to watch the actors going through the same process that the New Vistas actors go through. African American director Lisa Rose Middleton felt strongly that the actors had to come to grips with issues of race, class, gender and casting in their own group before they could explore the world of New Vistas Theatre Company. Despite differences of opinion, these actors came to respect each other's points of view and learn from each other. What emerged was an ensemble of highly skilled actors who had taken tremendous risks, and who subsequently brought passion and humor to the characters.
Source and the Folger sponsored a series of high-school matinees which were particularly exciting. One workshop involved students from two high schools—one predominantly white and the other predominantly black—who sat on opposite sides of the aisles. After they saw the plays, they introduced themselves to one another. I did a playwriting workshop which required each student to write a monologue and cast it using an actor from the other school. The results confirm what all of us who work in theatre and theatre education already know. Given the chance to share each other's stories, to walk around in each other's shoes, to become "the other," we have the opportunity to understand each other and, hopefully, become better human beings.
The results of this session had less to do with my workshop and my play than it did with the power of the arts in general, and theatre in particular. As we spend more and more time solitary, surfing the Internet, watching television, playing video games, we lose the community that theatre creates.
I believe that the classroom and the theatre are two of the last few safe meeting places. I consider myself fortunate to work in both of these places at the turn of the millennium. Like my teachers, Shakespeare, Wilson, Shepard and Hansberry, I'm trying to wrestle problems to the ground, thrash around with ideas to make sense of them through my characters. I hope that readers and audiences will feel that I, as Othello says, "have done the state some service."