Biography


 Originally published by tcg on August 27, 2014
Post image for #Ferguson: They Who Have the Guns Have the Power

Torie Wiggins as Mimi, Meggy Hai Trang as Anita, Keisha Kemper as Harry, Burgess Byrd as Shilo, Ken Early as Maddox, Darnell Benjamin as Knox, Jon Kovach as Overseer Jones, and Sola Thompson as Vivian. Photo by Daniel R. Winters

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MOThis series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia AlickMica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.

The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.

This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.

Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.

Ann Petry on Harriet Tubman

Image from the cover of Ann Petry’s book on Harriett Tubman

This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.

Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to.[1] Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.

In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.

But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.

Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? [2]

In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.

If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.

[1] Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.

[2] This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.

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Originally published by The Know Theatre of Cincinnati on July 17, 2014

10429246_10152366692474261_3680419330091930245_nIn preparation for directing Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief, I’m reading a book called Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. In it, the author, Milton C. Sernott, traces the development of Harriet Tubman as American icon by examining primary sources, children’s books (there are more than 100), and historical biographies. Quoting historian David W. Blight, Sernott explains how myth develops from a combination of history and memory:

Memory is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sacred sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts and the complexity of cause and effect. History asserts the authority of academic training and recognized canons of evidence; memory carries the often powerful authority of community membership and experience.

Gilmer’s new play about one of the most famous African Americans in history draws on both history and cultural memory to depict Tubman as we’ve never seen her before.

Whereas first-hand accounts of Tubman telling her own story use the dialect typically ascribed to illiterate slaves – “I saw de’ oberseer raisin’ up to throw an iron weight at one ob de slaves an’ dat wuz de las’ I knew” – Gilmer’s Tubman speaks with the voice of a modern leader. Whereas many accounts of Tubman’s life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad conflate historical fact with received memories without comment, Gilmer uses contemporary songs and film tropes to emphasize the fact that when we tell the story of Harriet Tubman, we are telling a story on a scale as epic as that of any ancient mythology.

When the Know approached me about directing Harry, I responded with enthusiasm but also asked that every attempt be made to find a black woman to direct. Though as a journalist I have covered successful collaborations between black playwrights and white directors (see here and here), and one between a white playwright and a black director (here), I am extremely wary of co-opting the story of a black woman as told by another black woman.

Many times in the history of American entertainment, the creative endeavors of African Americans have been stolen, imitated, corrupted, and otherwise used for profit by white Americans. Sometimes it’s done poorly (see my piece on Miley Cyrus at the VMAs), and sometimes it’s done with amazing artistic integrity. But even Jenji Kohan, who means well and is making a hugely important contribution to diversity in entertainment with her series Orange is the New Black, has not been able to avoid turning a story about something largely experienced by women of color and poor women into a partial regurgitation of the lie of the rich, white savior.

In Harry and the Thief, there is no white savior.

First Read

In fact, there are only two white characters, and though their arcs are fascinating and integral to the play, this is story about fugitive slaves, about contemporary black men and women grappling with the ongoing legacy of slavery in American culture, and about the malleability of history, especially when it comes to the disenfranchised.

As a director, I often describe what I do as translation. I translate writing on the page into action on the stage. I translate actor impulses into narrative structures. I translate history and memory into stories being told right here, right now, right in front of the audience. My hope with this production is that I can serve primarily as a translator for the epic myth of Harriet Tubman, for Gilmer’s voice, and for the memories and thoughts and feelings of the actors embodying these characters. Because I can read about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, I can read about modern-day discrimination, and I can imagine myself walking in the shoes of a person who experienced/s that. But I cannot remember it.

One of my favorite teachers and mentors, Anne Bogart, has a new book out, What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, in which she advises readers on the value of telling stories even about things you the storyteller and your audience have never experienced:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the hegemony of isolationism is not a solution to our present global circumstances. Our understanding of action and responsibility is changing. We know that our tiniest gestures have large-scale effects, as do the outward ripples of a pebble thrown into a pond. In moments such as these, of upheaval and change, stories become necessary to frame our experiences. … From their ancient origins and continuing through today, stories bind societies by reinforcing common values and strengthening the ties of a shared culture. But they do more than that. Stories give order and meaning to existence and are less costly than direct experience because with stories it is possible to collect information without having to personally undergo the experience. … In the theater we construct journeys for audiences utilizing the tools of time and space. An effective production communicates in ways that infiltrate the audience in multiple layers, weaving details and scenes, narration, imagery, symbolic action, plot and character. We create societies, tell stories, and propose means by which people can live together with increased humanity, empathy, and humor.

Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry and the Thief not only provides a new version of the Tubman myth, it also endows that myth with the possibility of engendering even more dramatic social change.

I can’t wait to get started translating this play into a production that can provide audiences with the opportunity to dream and imagine a future on a scale as grand as Gilmer’s fictional one.

I was working on a cover letter for an application for a teaching job and having trouble figuring out how to start. “I am writing to apply for your open position …” is not exactly an attention grabber. Plus, it is hard for me to talk about myself with the kind of authority required in a job application, so I decided I would write the first draft in the form of a story. Once I’d written it, I decided I’d share it with everyone. (In Los Angeles speak, I’m “putting it out into the Universe.”) This is my story so far.

Once upon a time, a little girl named Holly L. Derr fell in love with stories. She read and read and read and read everything she could get her hands on, and then she drafted her family and friends to act out the stories over and over. Several decades later, Holly became a theater director. Because duh.

Holly grew up in Texas, where she always felt a little out of place. She liked theater and music and books; most everybody else liked football. So she set out on an adventure to find a home. She went to school at the University of North Carolina. She lived in New York City and worked at The Public while running her own theater company. She went to Columbia University to learn how to be a better director from two of the best directors there are: Robert Woodruff and Anne Bogart. Then she moved to Vermont to teach for seven years at Marlboro College, Smith College, and the ART.

Three years ago her adventure brought her to LA. While here she has guest directed at the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California at Riverside, and Chapman University. She directed her own adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath at Son of Semele. Not surprisingly, given her love of stories, she began to write, and before she knew it, she had developed a national reputation as a feminist media critic and theater scholar. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, and XX Factor/Slate, among others. Through interviewing theater makers for Ms. Magazine and HowlRound she has developed relationships with the artistic directors of countless Los Angeles theaters, including The Theatre @ Boston Court, The Antaues Company, 24th Street Theater, East West Players, The Los Angeles Theater Center, the Latino Theater Company, and the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

This summer Holly’s adventure will take her to Maine where she will direct Romeo and Juliet at the Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House. The production will feature one of her favorite storytelling tools: Gender-flipping. The production, set in a Renaissance+Gothic-inspired period, will accentuate the gender confusion written into the play (Juliet is more masculine than Romeo, who is rather feminine) with a female Mercutio, a female Tybalt and a gender-flipped masquerade so that when Romeo and Juliet meet, he is dressed as a woman and she as a man. This kind of storytelling serves to open up a well-known play to new and surprising interpretations and provides insight into the instability of gender norms during Shakespeare’s time as well as ours.

Because teaching is one of her favorite modes of storytelling, Holly cannot wait to get back in a classroom. In addition to acting and directing classes, she teaches theater history, literature, and theory with a particular interest in plays by women and people of color. As a feminist media critic, she enjoys applying her ability to analyze stories to writing about film, television, video games, and comics as well as theater. Her hope is that theater can be understood as a part of the larger American culture of storytelling and at the same time, make use of the fact that it is the only mode that happens live.

Though her story isn’t even half way over, Holly has found her home. Southern California provides the perfect combination of theater, film, and educational institutions for her life as a director, writer, teacher, and feminist.

In conclusion, weather.

Cross-posted at Ms.

When The Help premiered earlier this summer, African American feminists bemoaned the lack of civil rights narratives told by the black women who actually lived through the era. Though it probably won’t be a Hollywood blockbuster, a bulwark American theater is about to open a civil rights play written by an African American woman. In the process, a long lost gem of the American theater might be on the verge of rediscovery.

Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.–founded in 1950 by theater matriarch Zelda Fichandler and run now by Molly Smith–is producing Trouble in Mind, authored by little-known African American playwright Alice Childress. Childress, of the same generation as Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and as well-known in her time, has been almost forgotten today. Both women were mentored by Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, both lived and worked in New York, both were largely self-educated and they were good friends and colleagues. But apparently there’s only room in the canon for one black woman, so while the wonderful Hansberry is featured in almost every major anthology of American drama, hardly anyone even recognizes Childress’ name. Most of her plays are out of print.

Alice Childress grew up with her mother and grandmother in Harlem in the 1920s, dropping out of high school after they both died. She educated herself with visits to the public library, learning about the structures of plays, books, and short stories by consuming Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sean O’Casey and books on African American history. As a single parent, she worked to support herself and her daughter as a salesperson, assistant machinist, insurance agent and domestic worker. Her plays give voice to the real working-class African American women she met in those jobs.

In the 1940s, Childress co-founded the American Negro Theatre, for which she acted and where she also found her voice as a writer, claiming that “racism, a double blacklisting system, and a feeling of being somewhat alone in my ideas caused me to know I could more freely express myself as a writer.” She became the first African American woman to have a play professionally produced with Gold Through the Trees, a musical revue of slavery and resistance throughout the African diaspora. Her plays incorporate the liturgy of the black church, traditional music, African mythology, folklore and fantasy, connecting the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement both chronologically and aesthetically. Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, Wine in the Wilderness and her 15 other plays are socio-political, romantic, biographical, historical and feminist.

Of the necessity of a black theater (as defined by Du Bois to be theater by black people, about black people, near black people and for black people), she once said,

We have cajoled, pleaded, tommed, protested, achieved, rioted, defied, unified … you name it! But white supremacists have dug their heels into the ground and will settle for nothing less than outright confrontation in the streets of America.

In an effort to counter the prevailing depiction of African American women on stage as maids and mammies, Childress created strong woman protagonists with minds of their own. She continued writing into the late 1960s.

Trouble in Mind, written in 1955, tells the story of a newly integrated theater company rehearsing a play for Broadway about race. Ironically, Trouble in Mind itself was optioned for Broadway but never produced there because Childress refused to give it a happy ending. In the play, a group of actors (led by Wiletta, an African American woman) and Al Manners, their white director, stumble their way around real race issues in an effort to mount a socially palliative play that the white artists believe will improve race relations. But real life has a habit of getting in the way of fictions like these, and eventually tempers flare over the black dialect, the unflattering portrayal of black mothers and the rehearsal techniques of the director–a Method man who pushes Wiletta to express emotions she doesn’t really feel.

According to the play’s director, Irene Lewis, who was until recently the artistic director of Baltimore Centerstage,

For years, the play was recommended to me as a show that I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, ‘No.’ So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of–what should I call it–whites (me) being ‘out of touch’ with the experiences of African Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at Centerstage in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.

The metatheatricality of the play provides plenty of room for commentary on race relations in the 1950s. But it also seems to be finding relevance, at long last, in the present. Trouble in Mind was presented in simultaneous readings around the country in June by Project1Voice, a national grassroots movement designed to support and cultivate artistic excellence, creativity and innovation among African American theater organizations. Curious as to how the sudden interest in Childress’ work fits into our current national dialogue on race, the Ms. Blog spoke not only with Lewis but with Marty Lodge, who plays the white director, and with E. Faye Butler, who plays Wiletta.

Ms. Blog: In what ways are the issues presented in the play a product of the past, and in what ways do they speak to us directly in the now?

BUTLER: It’s not a dated piece. The thing most people think who’ve heard it or seen is “Oh, what an interesting subject–to take something that is so present day and put it in the ’50s.” I say it’s not a piece that was written in present day. A lot of people, especially actors or people in the arts, always find it amazing that it’s written in ’55. They always think it’s a new piece.

LODGE: Things haven’t really changed that much. Wiletta is complaining that she plays all these mammy roles, and here in this day and age Viola Davis is still playing maids. So what has changed? There really aren’t that many great roles for middle-aged African American women. There are still plenty of Al Mannerses around. They think they’re open-minded and they’re not.

BUTLER: It’s that same old thing even when you go into casting and people will say to you, “Wow you really read that well.” You’re like, Yeah, I’m trained. But a lot of people think … you know that old adage–you’re not black enough, or you’re not white enough. People go, “Can you be more, you know, ‘urban?’” That’s the new thing, they say “urban.” I say I’m as urban as I can be: I’m black.

I always tell the story about my agent calling me saying there’s this famous director that’s interested in you for a play in London. So I get the side, and the side says, “Character sits on porch with kerchief on her head. She moans, groans and sings a spiritual.” I said, “You want me to come to an audition in New York to moan and groan and sing a spiritual? Have you lost your mind? Thank you, no.” No matter how far you think you’ve come, there’s always somebody that wants to take you right back. Why are we still telling that story? There are other stories to be told besides maids and servants. I think everybody needs to see this piece because it reminds us where we lie.

I was interested in the description of how Lewis came to direct the play and her original concerns about the character of Al Manners. Marty, do you feel like the character is stereotypical or unbelievable?

LODGE: He’s not like some stereotypical white guy in an all-black play. He’s nasty, but he’s nasty to everybody. He’s just kind of rude and self-centered. He fancies himself a liberal, open-minded guy, understanding and compassionate. He really believes he’s doing a cutting-edge play addressing things that hadn’t been addressed yet. He thinks he’s helping the cause. It’s not until the very end, when he blurts something out, that you find out, well, maybe all those liberals aren’t as liberal as you think they are.

LEWIS: [Childress is] such a good playwright. She doesn’t shove anything down your throat. She just lays it out there in a very graceful but strong way. I think it’s illuminating as well as extraordinarily entertaining. I mean, this is funny.

What’s it like working with such strong women leaders on this play?

LODGE: I never thought about it, but it’s true: It’s a theater run by a woman, and I’m playing opposite a really strong lead woman. And I kind of love it. [Lewis] is very brave and she is not afraid to say what she thinks.

Irene, how has being a woman affected your career as a director?

LEWIS: When I came up there were three women in the country who ran theaters. And they were spread out all over the map. What it took to get on the mainstage was very similar to this play. It was very similar in the way they spoke to you: “Don’t worry your pretty head about that.” It took me two to three years to have the nerve to say, “Please don’t say that.” It took me a long time to develop confidence. [As an artistic director], I like to mainstream a woman director, because you put the stamp of approval by hiring somebody and then another theater will hire her.

Do you think this play will lead to an Alice Childress renaissance?

LEWIS: No, I don’t. I mean, why hasn’t it already happened? Most theaters haven’t done it and I don’t think it’s necessarily because they haven’t heard of it. Black directors always bring it up. It was a natural for me, but people are gonna be what they are. All I can do is do my work and then see.

Well, a girl can dream.

Trouble in Mind runs September 9 through October 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Two special events allow for dialogue around the issues in the play: “Making Trouble: Women and Minorities in the Arts,” on Sat., Sept. 24 from 2–3 pm, will be a discussion about gender and minorities in the arts from Trouble in Mind to present day; “Black Face in the Media,” on Wed., Oct. 12 from 6–7 p.m. will be a conversation about the influence of media in the fight for racial equality in the United States from the late-1940s onward.

TOP: E. Faye Butler as Wiletta Mayer in the 2007 production of Trouble in Mind at Baltimore’s Centerstage. Photo by Richard Anderson.