SLP vs. Cleage

In a rare event Eclipse has featured not one but two playwrights during its 2007 season: Pearl Cleage and Suzan Lori Parks. Both prolific African American writers – let’s take a moment and take a quick peek at each author.

Pearl Cleage

Born: December 7, 1948 in Springfield, Massachusetts but was raised primarily in Detroit, Michigan

Education: attended Howard University, graduated from Spelman with a BA in drama

Early Career: Worked as the press secretary for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, as well as writing for several Atlanta based newspapers. Burst into the public eye when her first novel What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was featured on Oprah Book Club.

Dominant Thematic Material: Issues of black life, sex, drugs, and pregnancy primarily centered on black youth while presenting mature perspectives on coming to grips with good and bad life choices.

Quote: “I’m just saying I thought that was what black writers were supposed to do. Tell the truth to the people.”

Suzan Lori Parks

Born: 1964 in Fort Knox, KY, moved a lot as a child, went to high school in Germany

Education: BA in English and German literature from Mount Holyoke College

Early Career: Came into the New York scene early as her first plays were produced only four years after graduating from Mount Holyoke.

Dominant Thematic Material: Centered around creating a more Afrocentric writing, searching for a place for African Americans in the Eurocentric realm of American literature. Incredible focus on play on words, feelings music through the words.

Quote: “I am most interested in time and how people pass through it…A by product of time is history-what is remembered, recorded and transported into the next age. History-the destruction and creation of it through theatre pieces and how Black people fit into all of this is my primary artistic concern.”


Ethnicity in Theatre

Last summer Time Out Chicago had a feature article discussing the race barrier in Chicago. Prior to the articles publication Eclipse had already announced their 2007 season playwright, African American writer Pearl Cleage. A mostly white theater company producing an entire season of theater by an African American playwright. Could this work? Eclipse has had success with the first two production Blues for an Alabama Sky brought home 5 Jeff citations alone. Since the article several Chicago theatres have followed suit, whether it was the Time Out article or the plan was in the works prior to publication. Steppenwolf added 6 new ensemble members, 4 out of 6 are African American, in addition to the daring color blind casting used in their current production of The Crucible. Did Time Out strike a nerve with Chicago theatre companies or did they just recently become aware of the color barrier?

Read on to see what prolific African American playwrights think about the subject:

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One playwright. Two nights.

We performed seven short plays by Suzan-Lori Parks this past Friday and Saturday night; Week 43 of the year-long 365 Days / 365 Plays festival. This has been a great couple of weeks – they’ve been fun plays to explore, and we had a fantastic group of ensemble members and friends to explore them with.

We invited audiences to stick around for discussions with the cast and the directors after both shows, and had some great conversations about the brilliant and crazy idea of writing a play every day for a year and then handing them out to almost a thousand theatre companies around the world to interpret and share with audiences.

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An interesting inquiry came up both nights of Eclipse’s performance of Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays. People wanted to know what was the difference between what was performed and what Parks wrote on the page.

In general her plays purposely leave a vast amount of interpretation up to the actors, directors and production team. SLP has an incredible amount of faith in the theatre practitioners to interpret the work and leaves them with a beautiful, poetic sketch of an idea left for the production to interpret it in their own unique and individual manner.

In Eclipse’s week of the festival some of the pieces were left to vast interpretation on the page and others were able to stay very much inside the lines of the script. For example in Into Temptation, Nat Swift, the director, chose to have the actors repeat lines although it wasn’t written that way. Thomas Jones, director of Father Comes Home from the War (Part 9), used only three actors instead of the scripted number. Whereas, A Round for Glenn Gould and Into This Wild Abyss were performed without taking bolder leaps on the interpretation of the script but were still beautifully performed. Neither direction is correct or incorrect, simply the beauty of having seven different pieces, written in one voice, directed by five different directors.

Only One Page?!?

In the world of theatre we have ‘plays’, ‘one acts’, ‘sketches’, ‘scenes’, amongst other categories of performance types. One of the questions brought up during last weekend’s Suzan-Lori Parks post show discussion was: “How are these plays?” This brings up a very interesting question in the world of theatre, especially in dealing with a group of ‘plays’ that are only a page long. One of the actors answered quite simply: “It is a play because it has a beginning, middle and an end”. This is an excellent point, however, does that make it a play? One-acts and sketches generally have beginnings, middles and ends. Thus we are left with the same question. Is there something that makes a play different from a sketch or a one-act? What is a “play”? Random House lists 62 different definitions for the word most of which I could easily call theatre. The first definition is “a dramatic composition or piece, drama”. This says to me that a one-act and a sketch can both still be plays in the true definition as these are both dramatic compositions. Thus qualifying SLP’s 365 plays as actual plays because they are dramatic compositions. However, Parks herself questions them as plays in her own words while writing the 365 “plays”.

If the playwright (who is brilliant, no criticism of her writing here) is questioning her work doesn’t that leave us with the same question: “What makes these one page pieces plays?”

Dress rehearsal: 365 Days / 365 Plays

We’re taking the night off tonight, so last night’s dress rehearsal was our last before we perform 7 short plays by Suzan-Lori Parks this Friday and Saturday.

Everybody seems to be having a lot of fun, and we’re all trying some new things and taking some wild risks – something about these plays takes away all the pressure we normally feel to be “right” in the choices we make as directors and actors, and we’re free to simply explore them.

That exploration has given us plays that include characters who speak in gibberish, others who only sing arias, blindfolded guitar players, pantomimed violins, simulated orgasms and an awful lot of weapons.

Yeah, it’s been fun.

After the performances Friday and Saturday, we’ll invite everybody to stick around to talk about Suzan-Lori Parks and her work. She may not be our 2007 playwright, but she’s our playwright for this week, and this has been an amazing way to get to play with her words and her ideas.

365 Plays – getting our 7 ready

In the last two weeks we’ve been rehearsing the seven short plays that make up Week 43 of the world premiere of 365 Days/365 Plays.

When Suzan-Lori Parks first explained the concept of 365 Days/365 Plays to a group of representatives from theatre companies all around Chicago, there was an energy in the room that reminded me of those great late-night dorm room planning sessions where everyone was fearless and every idea was a potentially brilliant possibility. 365 Producer Bonnie Metzgar said the original idea felt like one of those “let’s paint ourselves purple and fly to the moon” ideas – and then they did it.

And now over 700 theatre companies around the country and around the world have joined their year-long adventure – each using seven short and strange little plays as a road map for their week’s journey.

It’s been a fun journey for us – the energy from that first meeting has carried through to rehearsals, and her writing has encouraged all of us to fly, purple-skinned and fearless, to wherever these stories take us.

We’re performing our seven plays this coming Friday and Saturday (September 7 & 8) at 8 pm at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater (2257 N Lincoln Ave in Chicago). It’s all free – stop by and join the fun if you can.