Friday, January 30, 2009
Review by Zac Thompson
In Lydia Diamond's play, a bright, underfunded African-American playwright sets out to write a drama about an affluent black family, but is constantly interrupted by the characters, who have their own ideas about how they'd like to be portrayed. Protective of their complexity, the family members--an unruly lot, including a spunky lesbian daughter, dyspeptic older brother, and suave grandfather--suspect the writer of wanting to turn them into easily marketable stereotypes (angry young black man, wizened gramps, hypersexualized vamp). Diamond's razor-sharp skewering of what audiences expect from black playwrights—historical pieces about slavery or family comedies with "a big momma on the couch"--is bitterly funny and saves the piece from the tedious self-indulgence that often befalls writing about writing. Mignon McPherson Nance's staging for MPAACT is pitch-perfect, with a fluid style somewhere between satire, realism, and Pirandello.
The year was 1991. A young University of Illinois co-ed packs her things and prepares for graduation day. She reflects fondly on her past four years here and remembers all of the house music, high-top fades, asymmetrical hair cuts all-nighters (studying and watching tapes of The Cosby Show and A Different World) and good times that have been her college days. The fondest memories by far? Times spent at “The Black House” dissecting our diasporadic experiences and a performing in a little play called A House Divided. Expertly produced by some young ambitious brothers with high theatre aspirations.
While rolling up her Georgia O’Keefe posters and gently putting her Guy, Stevie Wonder and Sade cassettes in an Esprit bag, she gets a call. “We’re in the car with Reggie. He says don’t move.” Moments later her dorm room is filled with Rob Goodwin (fellow future DePaul MFA grad and Uof C Theatre teacher), Bill Carroll (her English 263 – Theatre of the Black Experience instructor), and Reggie Lawrence (future Shepsu Aakhu and MPAACT head-brother-in-charge). They all talk about the potentially transformative power of theatre from an AfriKan perspective, the vital importance of breathing, the essence of being and spiritually becoming. They meet later that summer with other like minds in Chicago in an old funeral home. Not a harbinger of things to come.
Months later she finds herself in the back of a health food store on Chicago’s south side, dropping wonderful rhymes with wonderful people about blackness and beauty and culture. She stopped eating meat - temporarily. She made life-long friends. She was deep. She was essential. She was in the embryonic stages of would become what you now know as MPAACT – full seasons of culturally relevant plays and a veritable movement of theatre by us and all about us.
She returns full circle (after a short return for 2000’s The Abesha Conspiracy) to all that ever was and ever will be MPAACT. Her role as Writer in Stage Black has offered her time for reflection (What IS the state of black theater and the arts? How has her own vision changed and grown? What can we as artists do? Who do we write, act and create for? Will our best efforts, poetic dreams and deep inner thoughts make us money? And does it matter?). As a writer of children’s plays, playing a writer in this show proves a little trippy at times (hey – who’s reflecting who here?). But returning to her roots with her feet firmly grounded in all that she began with and has collected on the way, she is able to look about and feel connected and remember the whys of it all with just a glance and a deep breath or two.
Nearly twenty years later (cough) some of the faces have changed, but the spirit remains the same. The seeds of poetry and music and rhythm and messages and community and life and love continue to grow strong through everyone involved. Though she now enjoys her chicken wings and turkey burgers, and though she now has her own children’s theater projects to manage and grow she still breathes and lives those seeds through all of her work, which will always belong to all of us.
Tua-u and write on . . .
MPAACT Artistic Associate Carla Stillwell had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Lydia R. Diamond, writer of MPAACT’s current production Stage Black. Here are her thoughts or writing for the stage, getting produced and growing in her craft.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
A romance novel at twelve. It was about myself and Joaquin Andujar who was a Puerto Rican pitcherfor the St. Louis Cardinals and we would live in a big house. It was a little sexy for a twelve year old. I guess it was a precursor to plays because I used to act it out with my Barbie dolls.
What was your first production?
You guys did my first not self produced production. It was The Inside. That’s why this production is special for me because I still credit MPAACT for giving me my first professional production.
You write both original works and adaptations, how is the writing of an adaptation different from an original pieces?
Adaptation is much more difficult. I think my only true adaptation was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I think the process of adapting is hard because you’re trying to fit in to a hundred pages or fewer a work that existed in another dimension with considerably more words. And then there is the additional emotional burden of honoring the work that you are adapting.
Who helped or hindered you in your early career?
I don’t think it’s fair to say anyone hindered me as fabulously as things have gone. A lot of different people helped me in a lot of different ways. MPAACT helped me because I was not used to being produced so I’m sure I stepped on toes all the time because I was used to producing myself, but that’s a learning curve…learning how to be produced. Because I had the MPAACT credit and had produced myself…because these things were on my resume…I was able to use that to begin my relationship with Chicago Dramatist and Dramatist was instrumental in the next steps in my development as a playwright. The culture of Chicago theatre helped me as well. And Mignon [McPherson Nance], who is directing Stage Black has always been one of my favorite directors and dramaturg and to that end she has always influenced my work and made me a better playwright.
Most people now know you as a playwright. I know you as an actress. How did the experience of acting shape you as a writer?
I teach a lot of actors to write plays now and I think it [having been an actor] makes you a better playwright. I think we have it in our bones what dramatic structures is. We respect actors. But for me, my experiences as an actor helped me understand that I am truly a playwright; that writing the plays made me feel empowered in a way that acting never did.
What themes/ideas/concepts keep recurring in your writing?
It’s always the same thing…It’s always the same things…It’s always relationships, race, class. Even in my adaptations. These are the things that perplex me…the issues we can’t seem to resolve nationally.
Are these the things that inspire you as a writer?
I find that it’s shifting for me since I’ve become a mother. I think that my concern for and protectiveness of my child changes my focus from examining the world to examining relationships. I find that my in [road] to the work is now more character driven.
Tell us about Stage Black?
What to say…Well I wrote this play a long time ago…about fifteen years ago. I wrote it before I was even married. The challenge of this process was to honor the young woman that wrote Stage Black then and to be ok with that. I know I wouldn’t like it if someone fifteen or twenty years older came in and rewrote my play. I mean you get better with every play you write. I did want to do some re-writes, but I still wanted to honor the young women that wrote Stage Black years ago. This was an important learning opportunity for me too.
There is always a wit to your work, and Stage Black is hilarious, can you speak to how you use wit and humor in your work?
Thank you, it is a huge complement that you find it witty. I know I think it’s funny in my head.
Do you fancy yourself a closet comedian?
No, no, no…not even a little bit. Only in my own head. I think my humor and wit come out of situations and character development. I’m not funny at all. I do very badly at cocktail parties.
What do you mean why MPAACT?
Why did you say hey, let me give this theatre company my play?
Oh, well I think that MPAACT is a company that has very strong sense that it is Afrikan Centered…MPAACT develops new work…these are all the things that are important to me. And MPAACT is the first company that saw something in me and I will always appreciate that.
What is the most useful advice you ever received about being a writer?
Well there are two things…My friend Lisa Dillman told me a long time ago that my success can be marked by the number of rejection letters. That stayed with me because I know that when I get a rejection letter I know that I’m a player. That I’m putting my work out there and that is the first step. And Derrick Walcott my teacher at BU said something very beautiful to me…he says that you should be careful how you walk through the applause.
Stage Black runs January 16 through March 1st. Click here for more information.
Acting Afrikan Centered Theatre Awards Carla Stillwell Chris T Fascia Ghost of Atwood Review Heather Ireland Kevin Douglas Kosi Dasa Lydia Diamond Lydia R. Diamond Mignon McPherson Nance Radical Hearsay Review Shepsu Aakhu Stage Black Ten Square The Inside Writing