By Nelson Barre
Over the past couple months I have been fortunate enough to work on a production of my favorite August Wilson piece, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at Plays and Players in Philadelphia. As the second play in the playwright’s Pittsburgh Century Cycle, it presents us with one of the early intersections of the African-American experience in a quickly industrializing area of America. This play examines everything from race issues to economic problems to questions of identity that draw on the African as well as American experience of former slaves and their children and grandchildren.
My experience as the dramaturg began with the play’s selection last spring. I was newly made the Literary Manager and Resident Dramaturg and working on a production of Lost in Yonkers. Among my preliminary research was a need to connect myself into the process. It was more than simply providing a glossary and being there to answer questions about West African culture and its echoes throughout the past century. Not that those weren’t important to the production team and the actors, but I wanted to make the process more personal.
I found myself speaking with people who grew up in Pittsburgh, historians who knew the Hill District from August Wilson’s early years, families willing to share a piece of their community and their private history. It was beautiful to research these things, read about them in books written by experts, but one can never substitute the real thing. Hearing firsthand about a mother raising ten kids, spending every night at the dinner table. That’s beautiful. Speaking about religion and its importance to a community, as a sort of extended family, an intertwined neighborhood where everyone knows and trusts the people around them.
Telling the cast and production team about these experiences brought more stories from their own lives. I had opened a running faucet of personal stories, from heartbreaking losses to joyful praise and everything in between. Several cast members shared memories about their parents and grandparents who believe in the power of Hoodoo, a major part of Wilson’s dramaturgy and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. By opening up the conversation for the cast’s experiences as well as supplementing with my research, we found ourselves sharing our past, our identities, much like the characters in the play. These characters (and by extension, my dramaturgy) became three dimensional before and after rehearsals just as much as during the rehearsal itself.
I wanted to talk to everyone who was willing to let me learn from them, and thereby inform my understanding of 1911 Pittsburgh, the African-American experience, and August Wilson’s place among the canon of literature. These stories tell about struggle, hardship, and the weight that slavery has even in today’s day and age. But these people also shared their songs, the part of them that sang who they were and that they were proud and unwilling to be cowed by the institutions of white America against all odds. These are the stories that will never die, no matter how many years pass. Time isn’t eroding these lives, these memories; it’s vitalizing them, giving them a voice on the biggest stages. These things all came out when I spoke to the people who had lived in August Wilson’s time and knew about who he was when he wasn’t famous. That tells the stories of Pittsburgh that he wrote about and loved more than anything else.
Wilson always wrote from his heart, which meant his plays were always proud and vocal in the theatrical arena. He is one of the strongest proponents for Africa-American art as a form that must come from the voices and experiences of these people. I would highly encourage you to read his 1996 Theatre Communication Group address entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand” which assaults issues of colorblind casting, racism in culture, and the African experience in America as something to be celebrated. This sparked an intense debate with theatre critic Robert Brustein concerning the concerns Wilson raised in his speech. Neither man gave up his ground. I believe that is a testament to what August Wilson represents as one of the greatest American playwrights. His convictions shine throughout his Century Cycle, and most obviously in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which is why I love it. The playwright takes a stand for what he believes and writes vehemently about its imperative nature to art, culture, and African-American identity. Writers like this affect an audience, a reader, anyone who comes through their life. And this is why I love the theatre.
Now, producing all these conversations into a useful form was difficult, as most of them were ad hoc. I tried to keep an unofficial log of what I heard and saw, and I shared what I thought was most useful and direct for the production team and cast. This was in direct contrast to past styles of dramaturgy that included exhaustive binders full of every possible article and book that had to do with the play; that daunting task always feels overwhelming and in the end not always the most efficient use of time. I still provide a large amount of research, but with a play like this, it needed to come from the heart. I shared many of my documents, conversations, and research via Dropbox, which not only significantly decreased my paper usage but also stream-lined my dramaturgical process. Everything from sound files to newspaper articles to Youtube videos helped in the creation of my dramaturgical process for this play. This allowed the story to come quickly and easily to their fingertips as well as mine when I needed to recall a specific piece of information.
© Nelson Barre (February 9, 2012)
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone By: August Wilson. Directed by Daniel Student.
At Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA. Through February 11, 2012.
With: Kash Goins (Herald Loomis), Damien Wallace (Bynum Walker), James Tolbert (Seth Holly), Cherie Jazmyn (Bertha Holly), Jamal Douglas (Jeremy Furlow), Candace Thomas (Mattie Campbell), Mlé Chester (Molly Cunningham), Bob Weick (Rutherford Selig), Lauryn Jones (Zonia Loomis), Brett Gray (Reuben Mercer), and Erin Stewart (Martha Pentecost)