A ranting and raving site for black theater observations.
Monday, October 14, 2013
First here's some recent pictures of my fund-raising play reading of my "spicy, naughty, but nice" play: "Elizabeth's Precious Kitty". More on another blog for that. And like the subject, this picture is just a tease.
Hey I know this is cheating but I'm putting this new blog up because I think it's time for a "Fade-back-in-the-past" Day for me. Lots of new stuff happening; not withstanding the biggest is that I think I can escape from Atlanta and make my way back to New York City for good.
This is an old interview I did back in 2009 for AAPEX (African American Playwrights Exchange). Damn, I almost sound reflective, intelligent, and even clairvoyant. LOL!
Except for being "hijacked" into performing in a play at the local recreation center in the Fillmore District of San Francisco when I was 12 years old and a role that called for counting from one to ten in Spanish, I didn't have any exposure to live theater. As a matter of fact, I was booted from that role because I have a horrible time with foreign languages including English. I couldn't remember what came after cinco. I was a loner who lost himself in reading novels, especially Robert Lewis Stevenson's Call of the Wild & White Fang and Edgar Rice Burrows' Tarzan adventures. In fact as I lost myself in their tales, I thought that one day I would write adventure stories about wild wolf/dogs and traveling through jungles on foot.
My real evolution as an artist started when I was serving in a navy ship off the coast of Vietnam. The only reading material that I could find was Readers Guide and as I read their condensed stories and found that these writers were paid real money for this crap, I thought that when I got the chance I too would make a few extra dollars submitting them stories with more flair and imagination than those they'd already published. In fact, when I got back stateside, I submitted a story or two and got no response whatsoever. Either they weren't looking for the stuff I was writing or I didn't have the skills to know what I was writing. For a long time, in my early twenties, I forgot about writing and just ran the streets living the life of an oversexed and happy young man.
Then the Beginning-of-the End happened. My next door neighbor and street-running partner, who was also stationed on my Navy Reserve Ship, talked me into checking out a new black writers group down the street that had only two members, himself and the Founder. After one visit where someone read parts of a new short story, the ghost-of-I-can-do-that whopped me upside the head and I was hooked. The group grew very fast with everyone attempting to write short stories, but Evolution transformed many of them to writing poetry. I could never master poetry, so I became the only member not writing it. Then the Evolution turned to writing plays. Again I resisted and stayed the lone short story writer.
Unlike today where it's difficult to get the money to rent a space and produce a play, in those San Francisco days the hippies, the Black Panthers, weren't the only renaissance going on. With no formal training Black folks were doing all kinds of Art and most of it, with the help of the Arts Commission, was being performed live. Actors, Ted Lange (The Love Boat) , Shabaka Henly (Stella Got Her Groove On). Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) was just beginning his acting career getting his "chops" in a community group called Black Light Explosion Company. Many well known movie and television actors were caught up in this Arts Explosion. And the beauty of it all was that most of the groups supported and worked with one another. My group, The San Francisco Black Writers Workshop, would write plays and Black Light would provide the Actors, and another group that taught Directors, would provide the Directors. And the City would provide the venues, at no cost, for these events to happen. Yes, those were some heady times. One of our playwrights would finish the first draft of a play and two weeks later it was being performed. And because everyone was a poet or a playwright except me, their art came to life in living color and my short stories went into my dresser drawer. That is until...I was asked to write a 1st play for a college professor's convention coming to San Francisco. Just on a whim and because I was encouraged by the other writers to join the "fraternity" of the produced, I wrote a short play that was in titled: "Where's What?" Everybody asked me what the fuck did Where's What mean?!!! It was a satirical answer to the Panthers so-called food program. The first major revision was to retitle the play "Where's the Revolution".
To me it was to be a one-time shot. I was an artiste, not no simple playwright. Anybody could write a simple play. I just didn't know any better in those days. :) Anyway, I was so pumped up on seeing real people watching real people bring my real words to life, that for the next ten years or so I wrote plays full-time. The irony is that so many years (decades) have passed since then and I think I am the only playwright out of that group that is still writing plays. Out of all the many cities I have lived in this many years (Los Angels, New York, Atlanta) and all the many groups I have belonged to, I am a fervent and true believer in the workshop process. I can't believed that there are many true geniuses that sit alone in their rooms and write and then have their work go straight to producer to the stage without any feedback from other writers. Never be your own unflinching admirer. You might think that you don't want others rewriting your shit for you or giving you negative feedback so that you become discouraged. You want to bounce your work off others because most of us aren't able to smell our own shit. The theater in its true self is art in a collaborative world. The first to believe in your art are those that are part of the collaborative circle that makes it come to life. They are the real ones that have a true stake in it and you. Of course the people who pay to sit in those theater seats to experience what comes from your inner soul, want to experience your brilliance. But brilliance is a subjective thing sometimes. What smells like roses and to you is sweet as honey, might stink and taste like shit. Despite how brilliant you think you are, your art will be judge by many different objective observers. To me it's in the workshop environment where those first objective observers come in first contact with your art. And it will definitely be a mixed bag. You'll get those that have same artistic dreams as you and hate your work for it and will try their best to belittle your work just because that's who they are. You'll have cheerleaders telling you that your shit is brilliant and wonder when it'll be produced on a live stage knowing that all the time the audience will want their money back. You'll have those that care more about the quality of the art than they do personally about you as a human. And it's this hodgepodge of fellow thespians that makes workshops so very much indispensable to a playwright that wants to perfect his craft and not his damn ego. You will get all kinds of criticisms in that cramped environment. And if you want to learn to be able to survive and grow a strong "hide" as well as a strong belief in yourself and be able to let BS go through one ear and out the other and also allow meaningful criticism to make you pause and evaluate it to make a revisit to your "brilliant" play to see something you didn't see before-- then a workshop is an invaluable tool to make you a better artist. Wherever I go in my Gypsy-like life, I search out writers workshops. When I was in N.Y. I belonged to many and each served a purpose in the growth of my career as a writer.
As a new transplant in Atlanta, I have found myself faced with a dilemma, there are not a lot of playwrights workshops and exactly NONE that exclusively nurtures black writers. I can't with all honesty say that Atlanta is not a theater town because there is theater going on here. Just not a lot of my type of theater. All theater isn't inclusive. There is something to the commonality of the human species as well as uniqueness of different cultures. I could be wrong, but there are no black theater groups that have there own theaters in Atlanta. Most of the black theater I'm aware of here constantly rehash Black Classics or they are relatively new and inexperienced theater groups that specialize in church and gospel themed plays. I have to give my props to those latter groups because at least they are experimenting with actually producing NEW plays in a nurturing collaborative way. As for The Classics they are our "pride" of the past excellence of our theater art, but how much time and money is being diverted from advancing our art by producing new and exciting plays and emerging playwrights? If Classics are the majority of the "black plays" being produced in any year and any city, doesn't that prevent the "future" black classics ever from becoming future Classics because nobody is producing them too? Does that mean that black theatre as an art form becomes stagnant, almost a decadent art form because we're not actively seeking out and nurturing new blood and exciting new theater pieces by bringing them to life? The life blood of any culture is new innovative genius.
Despite my frustration as a successful playwright, I think of Atlanta as a new frontier with enormous possibilities. I believe that there are many secret playwrights and theater actors, directors, stage designers, lighting, and lovers of black theater that are looking for someplace; some collaborative meeting place of the black Art community from which to hone our distinctive form of theater and make Atlanta the next artistic center in America. I could just be a dreamer, but I've seen it happen before and had been an active part of it.