Using Critical Fabulation in History-Based Playwriting

Originally published by HowlRound on March 3, 2021

When the pandemic hit last March, the University of Memphis, as with most theatres and universities, went online for the rest of the semester, and our spring musical—one week into rehearsal—was canceled. Our chair, feeling deeply the loss to our students, wanted to provide them with a special experience when we came back in the fall. The idea was born to commission a new play to be written for our students about the effect of the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878 on African Americans and immigrants.

We landed on Calley N. Anderson’s proposal to tell these stories metatheatrically, centering on a contemporary, fictional Memphis theatre company themselves tasked with devising a play about the yellow fever epidemic. Over the course of the fall semester, the cast of BFA actors, Anderson, and I met weekly to share research, read new pages, and explore the issues raised by her play, The Story and the Teller. We performed the resulting draft in a Zoom reading.

zoom video chat of several people
Photo of the cast from the reading of The Story and the Teller by Calley N. Anderson. From the top right: Raina Williams, Justin Wills, Lauren Mathews, Austin Cloyd, Aly Milan, Elijah Bienz, Felicia Kimbrell, Oscar Garcia, Madisen White, Jada Farmer, Haleigh Johnson, Nicholas Davis, Tiffany Bonds, Jatavius Haynes, and Nikki Monson.

Just as the fictional Memphis theatre company at the heart of the play struggles to turn historical research into compelling theatre, so did we. When the 1878 epidemic hit, …

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