Scenes from Black History
First, a little personal news. But it requires a little back story.
A few years back, I wrote a play called Court-Martial at Fort Devens, based on a discovery I made—that in 1945 some young African-American women who had joined the army were tried for defying a racist colonel. I won’t outline the whole story, but it had the benefits of being true, surprising and inspirational, so I did the necessary research and wrote a script. The play premiered in Chicago in 2007. It was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for best play, and was beaten by something called, oh, August: Osage County. Dramatics published it.
Shortly after, I got a phone call from Woodie King, Jr., the artistic director of the New Federal Theatre, a company that for decades has amassed a considerable record producing plays on African-American subjects. He told me he was determined to produce the play in New York. It took him years to raise the money, but he pulled it off and last spring show ran in the Castillo theatre complex on 42nd Street.
A couple months back, I got the gratifying news that the production was nominated for six Audelco Awards. The Audelcos are given to achievements in black non-profit theatre in New York. Court-Martial was nominated for production, direction, ensemble, sound design, costume design, and playwriting. I went to the ceremony at Symphony Space, looking forward to having a fun evening and applauding the winners. I hadn’t seen the plays of all the women who were nominated in the playwriting category (yes, I was the only man), but I was familiar with some of their work and felt honored to be included in the group.
I was not remotely prepared when Court-Martial won every award for which it was nominated. So, yes, I had something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
There is some talk that Court-Martial may be re-assembled to play performances in the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina next summer. I hear that’s a blast of a festival. Fingers crossed.
Black history has been on my mind for other reasons.
I’m writing a book about the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center for Yale Press. The O’Neill is coming up on its 50th anniversary in about eighteen months, and the book is meant to celebrate that. Among the many things the O’Neill is known for is being the place where August Wilson was discovered, met his mentor-collaborator Lloyd Richards and built more than half of the cycle of plays he wrote dramatizing a hundred years of African-American history. Both Wilson and Richards are no longer with us, so I’m having to build an account of their work through interviews with people who knew them and from documentary sources.
Most of Wilson’s plays take place in Pittsburgh. This was on my mind when I went to Washington, DC to visit family for Thanksgiving. Having a few extra hours before I was scheduled to get on my train back to New York, I decided to visit the Phillips Collection, a small art museum near Dupont Circle. It is indeed an intimate building, but the holdings are filled with nifty surprises—a Van Gogh of men working on the road, a Renoir of a bunch of boaters partying, a room of Paul Klee, another with four Rothko canvases, a few ferocious political cartoons. And, in one section of a room, several panels of the Migration Series.
Jacob Lawrence was a young black artist when, in 1940-41, he painted a series of sixty vivid and dramatic panels about the African-American migration from the rural south to the cities of the north. For reasons I don’t begin to understand, two museums—the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips—ended up buying the panels. One museum displays the even-numbered panels, the other, the odd. I remembered seeing and being impressed by the ones I saw at MOMA, but I had forgotten the Phillips housed the rest. So my visit there was a case of serendipity. It helped fill in gaps in the story.
Reading about him, I discovered that, like Wilson, Lawrence clocked some serious time in Pittsburgh. Indeed, some of Wilson’s plays deal with the effects of the great migration that Lawrence’s cycle depicts. Trawling around the internet, I learned that in the 1990s Wilson and Lawrence spent at least one evening at the same dinner table. That must have been some conversation!
Here’s the website the Phillips devotes to the cycle, including a picture of new arrivals looking at the smoke stacks of Pittsburgh.