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. Read more