Roots: music and ancestors in “black odyssey”

In the months and weeks leading up to rehearsal, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a few rehearsals for black odyssey. It’s going to be filled with fantastic music: powerful percussion by J. Alphonse Nicholson, who plays Ulysses, and blues, jazz, traditional songs and spirituals sung a capella by the cast and guided by Vocal Composers Linda Tillery (Music Director) and Molly Holm (Vocal Ensemble Director). At the very beginning of the rehearsal process about a month ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with director Eric Ting and vocal composers Molly Holm and Linda Tillery for a Q&A discussion. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

black odyssey begins low-priced previews Wednesday, August 9 and opens Saturday, August 12, playing through September 3.
More info and tickets here.

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Eric Ting: Can you talk about where you are in the process right now and what this journey has been like so far? This is not your first time working with Marcus, right?

Molly Holm: It’s my third.

Linda Tillery: This is my first collaboration with Marcus, but I have seen a couple of his productions. I was reminded today that it was Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi that really piqued my interest in Marcus’ work, because I loved the integration of the music and the acting.

Eric: Can you speak more about what you see in Marcus’ work that draws you to it?

MH: I just want to remind Linda that we brought her in as a consultant on This World in a Woman’s Hands [at Shotgun Players in 2009] because—

LT: —What she said

MH: —because he was asking for some roots music and I wanted to make sure it was—

Eric: This is the Richmond project, right?

MH: Right, so Linda came in and did workshops with the singers and we went through a bunch of different songs, and then we picked

LT: —”Ain’t No More Cane”,

MH: —gospel, spiritual songs.

LT: One of the things that I feel from Marcus’ work is that I connect with him as a child of “immigrants.” And when I say immigrants, I mean Black parents that make their way from the South to the West Coast. So there’s certain ways that he expresses himself that seem very familiar to me. And the fact that his father is a minister, and he himself seems to have a really close relationship with this music. He’s not a visitor, he’s very at home with this traditional stuff. I like that. So there’s an old soul that lives within him as well as this very avant-garde contemporary writer. He has a great sense of humor: renaming Poseidon as Paw Sidin: I love that about him.

Eric: So when Marcus sits down and says “Who I really want to work with on this play is Linda Tillery and Molly Holm because there’s this nut in this work that we haven’t cracked yet, and it’s got to do with the music, with the role that this music plays in this play.” How do you see music living in this piece, in black odyssey?

MH: I just think it’s just there, you know? To me it was just a perfect place for you, Linda, to really bring forth everything you know. All your musical knowledge and repertoire. It’s like someone just made the nicest garden plot with tons of compost and all the watering, it’s just the perfect planting ground.

LT: Yeah, it is, but I also think that I see both of us contributing in our own ways tremendously to this production. Because we know each other it’s so much easier to get to where we wanna go. We’re not fighting each other. We have conversations and discourse about what something is, and maybe we have a difference of opinion, but we’re not fighting, we’re not working against each other, which is really great. It’s a breath of fresh air.

ET: For me, the music in this piece is really an expression of the spirit. There’s something about how when I read this play and I think about it unfolding, the role of music is as much a thing that unites all of these people together across time and across space. That’s just sort of in my head, how the language of the music becomes representative of these ancestors that Ulysses is calling forth at the very beginning. There’s something about music that is that, especially the roots music that you’ve been introducing in this. There’s something about that that’s a call to community. Can you talk a bit about that?

LT: If you look at the music over time, we’re calling forth people from cotton fields, calling forth people who may have bought their first car, how they got that car, because for me, I’m using my parents, their experience in this country is kind of a catalyst for how I move the song—”ok, now my mother told me that when she lived in Texas, things were this way”—and so I think some of the music reflects that. If you ask a person who is, say, in their 70s or 80s, did you have an “Uncle Bubba” who had to go to jail because “Mr. Charley” did such and such? “Pretty Black Woman” reflects that: bunch of guys who are in prison, they’re trying to pass the time of day. They create these songs, often in this music, this prison music, the subject matter revolves around a woman and her body: that seems to be what gets these men working. Then we get the spirituals, that’s the most enduring music, the spirituals in this play. Those are the songs that are going to evoke the most emotion out of the audience. The Motown medley will be fun, but the deep reflection is going to come from “Didn’t it Rain” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

ET: The music that came to us in the first draft is virtually unrecognizable now. The song selection that Marcus originally introduced through the script, we’ve kind of just let go of. So the process of selecting and curating the music for this: has there been some touchstone you’ve been using, or has it been about responding to the what Marcus is describing as the moment so that at some level the genre becomes part of that dialogue?

Marcus Gardley, Molly Holm, and Linda Tillery at musical workshops for “black odyssey” in March. Photo by Eric Ting.

LT: Marcus is the catalyst. I just throw it out there, the couple of times he’s been here, I throw it out there and wait for his response. I think some things hit him harder than others. I kind of watch his reactions. Sometimes he’ll be very vocal about what he wants, which is nice. But the problem is we have enough music for 2 or 3 plays! And it’s all good music. It’s hard to stop! It’s really hard to stop. Because for me, I’m having certain visceral responses as we move through this process, so there’s the objective me, then there’s the me that knows how important this music is in my life, in my day-to-day existence and the day-to-day existence of many people. It makes me want to be here.

ET: Can you talk about the importance of music in your life?

…LT: [speechless for a bit, then she makes a face]

…AC: I’m putting that in italics, “deep eye roll” [laughter]

LT: It’s just a thing that has helped me make my way through 68 years of life on the Planet Earth. Most of the time joyfully, but you know, there’s been some pain. But I can’t see living without music. Not only my own creativity, but I enjoy the creativity of other people. I’m a good audience. If I’m sitting and I’m listening to somebody and they’re doing something well, I get so joyful. It’s like, wow! Look at that! Listen to that! It’s my soul food.

ET: The act of making music, just in the time I’ve been in the room with you and the actors, it’s become so central to my understanding and experience of this play. Even though this idea that the making of the music is somehow the journey. How does one build a chorus of singers, an ensemble of makers in this sense?

MH: I think it’s this idea of real time. Being in the room, with the people, with the singers, with the personalities, with the actors—we haven’t even seen them act except their audition tapes and I already know how good they’re going to be. But just from the feeling in the room of who they bring, just arriving to rehearse with them. Once we open our mouths together, no matter what we’re singing, really, there’s a musical persona that comes through. It comes through everybody individually, but you put people together, and they’re singing together, and there’s this other thing kind of like the sum is bigger than the parts. What I’ve learned over the years, in the times I’ve been around Marcus or the times I’ve worked on his material, is there’s this freedom inside of what he’s doing. He’s so poetic so there’s this fluidity; he’s not rigid about stuff. He’s laying down some pretty heavy stuff but I just feel like every part he puts down, he’s leaving room for it to flower in whatever direction it takes itself, so he leaves that space. Just when we have a phone conversation, any time we leave with him, he’s always like “I LOVE it!” And I believe him!

LT: HE’s a good audience!

MH: I believe him! But part of that is a spirit that allows for an evolution of something. And we must’ve driven you crazy saying “No, we gotta have everybody here, we gotta have everyone.” Because it’s the life of each person and the life that they bring that makes the whole. And Linda and I know that, either from working together in groups or working separately in our own ensembles, that there is a life that comes from an ensemble of singers. I feel so touched to be here. The first time I worked with Marcus was Love is a Dreamhouse…circle singing and some chants…for This World in a Woman’s Hands. I don’t know how, but Marcus understood how I worked for the music that I like to do. It comes out of a jazz tradition, it comes out of working with Bobby McFerrin in Voicestra, the circle singing, it comes out of this whole spirit of improvisation, you know, creating things on the spot, and so we had a year and a half of workshops with the singers and Marcus coming in and saying what he wanted. And he hadn’t even written it—he was writing the piece as we went. So that was a marvelous thing, and I think what’s happened here, I think he liked all that, right? And I liked it…

ET: And he asked you to do it in a month and a half!

MH: …but he got introduced to Linda, too, and I just feel super privileged to be here, to work with Linda, you, the company, the actors. I just want to remind people I’m not black and… [everyone laughs]

ET: Neither am I!

MH: Linda knows I say this a lot! But you know, I love the music. And we have crossover in the music through jazz. I just so happen as a jazz vocalist to have a deep love of roots music. I don’t have the knowledge that Linda has but I have the love of it. Talking about roots music, by the grace of God I got to learn North Indian Raga singing, I mean, I got to study it; I can’t say I learned it, but that has deep roots, we don’t even know how much that connection is between Africa and India, right?

LT: Right.

MH: John Santos was talking about that at SF Jazz, that’s a whole ethnomusicology study in itself, but the music itself has roots that come from different places. I think that improvisation opens up those cross-cultural connections even more. And then you add into that if someone has the spirit to embrace that or to allow it. Like the spirit you [Linda] had to be like, “Marcus wanted to do this, ok, let’s just dive in and go for it.” That’s a beautiful thing.

ET: Marcus has such a deep love for this community, for the Bay Area; I think that’s one of the things he was most excited about, on top of working with the two of you, it was about being able to bring this play here, and to really set it in the milieu of the Oakland and the Oakland Hills and the East Bay. What does it mean to be a Bay Area artist for you?

LT: Let me jump in there right away because I had an experience recently that was very eye-opening for me. This past Sunday I performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and the stage was set up on Steiner Street. I grew up in that area in the Western Addition. And I hadn’t performed in SF in a long while and I just kind of looked around and was like, “oh my god,” it was almost like the heavens opened up or something, it was a familiarity with place, and there were people there who came up to say hello, whom I’d known for 45 years, you can’t beat that. Now, my experience as an East Bay musician is that I found the Funk over here. I learned the Blues in San Francisco, because of my parents and my aunts and uncles, they came from Texas, they listened to the Blues, they loved the Blues, and so I love the Blues too! You had to, you couldn’t live at my house if you didn’t love the Blues! So then I moved over here, and that’s where I learned Funk and Jazz, and my first ten years in the East Bay was spent hanging out with the best East Bay jazz musicians there were, because I wanted to learn. One of the things I wanted to learn was how to listen to that music. I never could figure it out. I remember listening to Earl Garner, Concerts by the Sea, it’s a very famous recording, and when it got to the improvisation I’m like, “what is he doing? He’s just going [she scats a few lines]…” So I wanted to understand, oh, there’s form, and no, he’s playing over the form, he’s just not playing the melody, he’s expressing himself. So this has been the place where for me, the greater amount of development happened here in the East Bay. And also politically, I really grew into activism living here in the East Bay. All kinds of stuff started here and flourished, and grew. In the early days of the Panthers I used to play at rallies, things for librarians and gay rights, I mean, I never knew any of that, I never experienced activism when I was growing up in San Francisco, because I didn’t come from a politically active household. Not in the way that we would understand it now, but I think back on things that my mother said to me: she had a sense of activism, she just didn’t know that she did. But, for me, now, the music and how I live my life, and what I project in the world are inseparable, we’re a package. We all come together. So that’s what it means to me.

MH: For me, I’ve always lived in the East Bay once I moved down here. But I grew up in Oregon, and it was a little more conservative up there. But it just so happened that my mom loved jazz. So my whole growing up in the living room, being played all the time, was Duke Ellington and Count Basey, and Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hodges, and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus, that was just part of the living room set. So here I was in this fairly white community but I had the black music coming in, filling all of our ears in my family. And then when I moved down here to go to school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I was out at Mills for a year and then I quit, and then I went down to Laney College. I went to Alameda Community College and Laney College. And that turned me around. That’s when I decided, ok, I’m not going to be a doctor. [laughs] I wasn’t doing well in chemistry. And down there, Ed Kelly was teaching. And I’d go by myself out to East Oakland and I go hear Ed Kelly and Mr. Majors.

LT: Mr. Majors, yes.

MH: They bring guest artists to Laney, Mary Lou Williams, piano, Earl Father Hines, it was amazing. One of the first times I went to Keystone Korner, I considered East Bay and San Francisco tied together by the music, and Keystone Korner at that time they would book a group from Tuesday through Sunday. So you could go over many nights if you loved the group. I heard Art Ensemble Chicago when I was 18, and that just did me in. I was gone. I didn’t even know there was music like that. My mom was listening to more straight ahead jazz but when I heard Art Ensemble Chicago, I just couldn’t believe it. And then I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how could I do that vocally. I’m still trying to figure it out!

ET: One last question: we talk a lot about Roots music in the work that you’re doing, and Marcus talks a lot about the journey of Ulysses in this play as a journey through his blood and through his ancestry, his roots. What does the idea of roots mean to you?

LT: Roots to me, right now, is Africa. If you’re asking me what are the roots of all the music I listen to, I would start in Africa with those roots going deep in the ground, and then there’s branches and there’s leaves, and then there’s seeds that drop down and new trees start to grow, but you know roots: fundamental. Essential. And unfortunately we don’t in this country, acknowledge often enough what the roots of our western music is, what it is, where it comes from, what it’s about. It’s really quite simple. All the academics know this, and people talk about it, pay it lip service, but because of money for music, things get kind of convoluted. For example you’ll have Joe Cocker. All he did was copy Ray Charles. That’s exactly what he did but for a certain group of people that was safe. That was safety for him, it was safer for THEM, safer than acknowledging that Ray Charles inspired Joe Cocker and essentially made it possible for him to earn a living. And it happens all the time. It’s important not to get consumed with anger about it, but to just move forward and keep telling your truth, keep trying to represent the music with authenticity, and hope that there are some people out there who will appreciate it. That’s roots to me.

MH: I concur. What I might add to it is when I think of roots I also think of history. And Linda and I have had many conversations about this, that acknowledging the history—you don’t have to be a historian but you certainly have to pay respect to where the music is coming from. My experience has been, because getting a degree in music was so heavily western European classical music. And there’s some great music there. But when people are telling you that’s the only music…it’s hard. That was happening not long after I heard Art Ensemble Chicago. Don’t try to shove something down my throat and tell me that this is the only thing because that’s where people with money, where a certain elitism is happening. And don’t even disrespect that music, by elevating it so high, as if it weren’t open to the other music. Rosco Mitchell, who teaches at Mills, he talks a lot about this. What do you call jazz, you call it free jazz, you call it avant garde—he says, “I call it music.” He’s not gonna break it down. It’s music. But politically, and economically, it has been broken down, and it’s broken, and we’re trying to repair it. The money has not followed the right people. Pay respect. Give credit where credit is due.

LT: Yeah, because no one group of people owns the music: once you release it into the air, it’s there. But if you’re gonna sing Hound Dog, don’t give the credit to Elvis Presley, let’s talk about Willie Mae Thornton, because that’s her tune.

MH: This can get very contentious, even as a jazz vocalist, I have had people say in front of me, they’ll refer to classical music as “legitimate” singing. It’s like, I’m not illegitimate, ok. I know my business. It’s a big thing that has to be interrupted, the issues have to be raised and talked about, and when someone makes a comment like that, you have to interrupt it.

LT: I always say, you really wish you could sing soulfully! That’s one of the reasons you wanna put this music down: you can’t do it. However, I will say that Renee Fleming is breaking the barriers these days! She’s put out a pop album and she sounds like a pop singer. She’s retired from opera and she’s focusing on pop music. And she listens to Kurt Elling, I heard her say that. Now whether you like him or not, for a classical singer to say that she listens to a jazz singer, I’m like, wow. My respect for you has grown exponentially. And conversely, I’ve had people who consider themselves to be jazz aficionados really dump on R&B, “Oh that’s just R&B.” No there’s no “just” anything—it’s either good or bad. Duke Ellington knew that, he said it, “What’s wrong with the rest of these eggheads.” You do what you do, and you do what you do, thing is, do your best, that’s all I say.

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Linda Tillery is a prominent figure in the world of music. As a vocalist, percussionist, producer and workshop leader she has performed and recorded with leading musicians across several musical genres. A San Francisco native, she began her singing career in the 1960s with the psychedelic/soul band Loading Zone. During the 1970’s Tillery became a staff musician and producer at Olivia Records, an all woman-owned and -operated label. Her self-titled 1977 recording garnered a Bay Area Music Award for Best Independently Produced Album, and to honor its 40th anniversary, she has reassembled the original band members and will be touring in the United States. Tillery has won two Bay Area Jazz Awards for Outstanding Female Vocalist and her classic children’s recording, “Shakin’ A Tailfeather,” was nominated for a Grammy. 

Linda has recorded and performed with Santana, Boz Scaggs, Ray Obiedo, Sheila E., Huey Lewis and The News, Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb and Bobby McFerrin. In 1992, she formed the Cultural Heritage Choir in order to pursue the research and performance of Sacred and Secular music of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Today the Choir includes Tillery and fellow Bay Area vocalists Rhonda Benin, Tammi Brown, Bryan Dyer, Zoe Ellis and Javier Navarrette.She has taught workshops at Stanford, Williams College, MIT, University of Cincinnati, and University of Indiana Bloomington.

Molly Holm is an unconventional singer and composer, and a director for multi-cultural vocal ensembles. For over 35 years she has explored the musical boundaries of vocal jazz improvisation through original compositions, jazz repertoire, North Indian Raga, modal tonalities and experimental, free-form pieces. Receiving her M.A. in Composition from Mills College— where she currently teaches—Molly studied with master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and composers Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. As a performer, she was a founding member of Bobby McFerrin’s original Voicestra; the featured vocalist with Terry Riley’s group, Khayal; and a singer in tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain’s SF JAZZ piece, Rapt, No Strings. Other projects have included performances with choreographer June Watanabe (E.O. 9066), George Coates Performance Works (Actual Shо̄), and collaborations in multiple ensembles with African-American Roots Music vocalist Linda Tillery. Molly’s compositions for Marcus Gardley’s multi-racial plays, Love is a Dream House in Lorin and This World in a Woman’s Hands garnered outstanding reviews; and her 2013 CD, Permission, was described as “Edgy and defiant.”

 

Posted in 2017 Season, black odyssey | Leave a comment

Buried Histories: Marcus Gardley on history and black odyssey

On a Thursday evening, black odyssey playwright Marcus Gardley and dramaturg and Artistic Engagement Associate Lisa Evans connected across time and space (or in layman’s terms: had a phone call) and talked about recontextualizing texts, the tradition of oral history in black communities, and expanding understanding of black history. 

Lisa Evans:  What’s so beautiful about this play is how you’ve taken this literary archetype of a hero’s journey and portrayed it not through the traditional mythology but through the lens of delving into this buried history. What was the process like for you in reframing this classical text and recontextualizing it?

Marcus Gardley: That’s a great question. Well, you know I’m obsessed with myths and legends and [how] a group of people from a specific culture explain creation. How do they explain divinity? How do they explain why the sun revolves around the earth; why there’s a night time and a day? I think that this act of contextualizing, of telling stories so that we have beliefs is the point of art.

What I tried to do with this play is that for one, wanted to retell a story because I feel like, especially in the African American oral tradition, the retelling is actually the point. My great- grandmother always talks about this because she’s considered the griot in our family. She really talks about that the point of the story is the retelling of it. She says “when I tell a story and you re-tell it you can add your own point to it; you can add your own spin to it. Then you add a little piece to it and you make it yours.” This retelling allows for a certain generation and new way of thinking to arise.

What I love about The Odyssey is that it’s the story of a man who is essentially lost and he’s lost not necessarily because he can’t find his way but because he has inner turmoil.  It’s really [a story about] a man who’s a on a journey to self discovery. Meanwhile his wife and son are left alone and have to fend for themselves and so it’s sort of a parallel story. I really love that sort of structure in story telling where you’re waiting the whole time to see the hero, if you will, and his family reunite. For me this was sort of the perfect context to tell the story of the history of African Americans in the United States. I feel like as a culture we are a group of people who have had an immense amount of struggle [and] this ability to survive against all odds really is remarkable and is unlike any other group of people in history. I wanted to write something that both celebrated but really gave audiences a chance to sit for two hours and look at the breadth and width of this really dynamic culture because often times when people are exposed to African American culture they get a slice at a time; Frederick Douglass did this here, Harriet Tubman did this here. But I really wanted people to sit through the whole breadth and width of it.

The chorus asks you to step in [Ulysses’] shoes because this being lost and being found really reflects to me the central point of the culture. What makes African American culture so fascinating is that there is something greater than who we are that unites us and that always allows us to get through the turmoil. We are always found, you know? We are always found when we are lost.

Below is an annotated timeline of events in African American history that are relevant to the context of the play. Our goal, as mentioned by Gardley above, is to provide as wide a breadth of this history as possible.

1655: First legally recognized slave in present US

1808: Congress banned importation of slaves from Africa

1820: Missouri Compromise

1831: Turner Rebellion

1863: Emancipation Proclamation

1865: Civil War ends in April, Lincoln is assassinated days later. KKK is formed in May by ex-Confederates. In June, 250,000 slaves in Texas receive news that the Civil War is ended. By December, the 13th amendment prohibits slavery, but every southern state has enacted laws restricting the rights of emancipated Freedmen.

1868: 14th amendment defines citizenship as those born in the US, including former slaves.

1890: Mississippi wrote a disfranchisement (lack of ability to vote) section into its state constitution. This is often considered the beginning of legalized Jim Crow.

1914: Marcus Garvey establishes the Universal Negro Improvement Association

1915: The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities begins.

1917: First major civil rights demonstration in the 20th century, with 10,000 people marching in a silent parade in NYC

1931: The “Scottsboro Boys” are indicted in Alabama, despite flimsy charges. Over 3 trials, 4 are acquitted, and 5 are sentenced to long prison terms

1934: The Apollo Theater opens in Harlem

1945: The WWII effort increases the Great Migration to unprecedented levels, transforming American politics and laying the foundation for the Civil Rights movement in the coming decade

1952: Malcolm X becomes a minister with the Nation of Islam

1955: Emmett Till is murdered in August. Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the “colored section” of a Montgomery bus

1958: “Little Rock Nine” desegregate Central High School by attending with intervention by Federal troops and the National guard

1963: Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested and writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which advocated nonviolent civil disobedience. Later that year, during the March on Washington, he delivers his “I Have Dream” speech

1964: Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act

1965: Malcolm X is assassinated

1966: The Black Panthers are founded

1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated

1985: Gwendolyn Brooks is the first African-American to be named U.S. Poet-Laureate

1987: August Wilson’s play, Fences, wins a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award

1992: A jury acquits three police officers accused of beating Rodney King. The verdict triggers a three day uprising in Los Angeles that results in over 50 people killed, over 2,000 injured and 8,000 arrested

1996: California voters pass Proposition 209 which outlaws affirmative action throughout the state

1999: Serena Williams wins the U.S. Open Womens Singles Tennis Championship, the first African American woman to do so since Althea Gibson‘s win in 1958

2005: Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast, taking an estimated 1,700 lives, the vast majority of which are African-American people living in New Orleans

2009: Barack Obama becomes the first African-American president and the country’s 44th president

2013: #BlackLivesMatter movement is begun following the indictment of a man who killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin

2014: Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a police officer. The grand jury decision not to indict the officer was announced, sparking protests in Ferguson and cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. The protests continued as another officer was not indicted for placing Eric Garner in a chokehold, leading to his death, and over the next few years have intensified as case after case of African-American people murdered by vigilantes and police officers come to light, with very few indictments

NOW: Ulysses Lincoln is coming home to Oakland.

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black odyssey is playing through September 3. Get tickets here.

Hear Marcus Gardley on KQED’s Forum here.

Posted in 2017 Season, black odyssey, Main Stage | Leave a comment

Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

by Melissa Hillman

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play,” narrated through the main character’s memories of his mother, Amanda, and disabled sister, Laura. Tom, the main character, is the filter through which we see Laura and her disability. This filter becomes critically important when thinking about how disability is portrayed on our stages. When staging a woman’s disability as seen through the eyes of an able-bodied man, the issues that arise mirror the issues of living with a disability in the “real world.” Those of us who live with disabilities spend a great deal of time managing the emotions other people have about our disabilities, disrupting the narratives they create about us, and struggling to be seen as our own, individual selves with complex intersectional identities. Women know how much of our lives are spent managing emotions and opinions about us as women—about our bodies, our families, and our choices. It’s no surprise that one of the most famous disabled female characters in western dramaturgy is only seen as the memory of an able-bodied man.

So when we stage Laura Wingfield, approaching the character as an opportunity for disabled representation through the framework of the memory of an able-bodied man is a challenge. The casting of disabled actor Madison Ferris as Laura in the recent Broadway revival generated many deeply emotional responses from both reviewers and audiences. There were claims that casting Ferris—the presence of Ferris’ disabled body onstage, along with the wheelchair she uses—was exploitative.

That casting was thrilling to me, personally, in part just because there are so few representations of disabled people on our stages, and so many able-bodied actors portraying us, often badly. (How hard is it to learn to use a cane properly? Evidently very hard.) In part, however, it was thrilling because the very phenomenological fact of Ferris’ disabled body onstage disrupts the play’s attempt to contain Laura as a memory and assign to her all the symbolic meaning the play wishes her to carry. One of the main complaints about Ferris’ performance was that she was too bold, too assertive. She lacked the shy, retiring wallflower quality that is too often ascribed as the proper behavior for “improper” bodies. If you must inflict yourselves on us, at least do it quietly. Be as slight—or as invisible—as possible. Ferris’ rejection of that, and director Sam Gold’s staging of her that highlights the difference her body exhibits as it moves through space, was uniquely troubling to people who were made uncomfortable by the reality of the disabled body they had expected to be neatly contained as a memory—an echo of a disability, primly played by an able-bodied actress whispering demurely while walking with a slight, but pretty, limp.

This discomfort was what led people to call it “exploitative,” an absurd claim that’s steeped in ableism. To call a disabled female body onstage “exploitative” is to assert that the public display of our bodies markedly differs from the public display of the bodies of able-bodied female actors. We fill our stages with thin, white, young, able-bodied women and measure all female bodies with their distance from that “norm.” We accept unquestioningly that thin, white, able-bodied women are naturally meant to be displayed, and every female body that varies from that too distinctly should be hidden from view. To label the display of a disabled female body “exploitative” is to say that our bodies are so far from the “norm” that they’re naturally meant to be private, hidden from view, and that any display of them is improper. “Exploitative” implies that just allowing ourselves to be seen is, in some way, a crime. This is, in a word, balderdash.

Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption of this “norm” by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a “Laura” that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.

Portes’ staging goes right for the jugular in attacking this. Amanda, Laura’s mother, persistently seeks to define Laura, controlling the language people—even Laura—use to define her and steadfastly ignoring anything Laura wants or says. Portes throws the focus on Laura in these moments and highlights Amanda’s inability to truly see her daughter. Fico’s Laura walks with crutches because Fico walks with crutches, yet Amanda insists Laura’s disability is “barely noticeable.” Part of the oppression of people with disabilities by the able-bodied majority is that the way we walk, move, talk, and occur in space are assigned value by the able-bodied based on our difference from the able-bodied “norm.” “It’s barely noticeable” is not a compliment. We know disability is an indelible part of our humanity, and assuring us that you don’t see it, think about it, or even notice it is only assuring us that you are studiously ignoring a major aspect of our humanity. It’s reminiscent of telling a Black person “I don’t see you as Black.” It means “I don’t see you at all; I see a fictional version of you.” In scenes with Amanda, Laura wavers between trying to get Amanda to see her (insisting she can clear the table, describing the pleasure she gets from her walks), managing Amanda’s emotions about her, and hiding. Portes’ staging never allows the audience to forget about the real Laura even as Amanda creates a fictional Laura she finds more comfortable.

But the most powerful staging of the play centers around Laura and Tom.

Glass Menagerie is not just a memory play; it’s an act of exorcism. Tom has done something inexcusable and is attempting to rid himself of the guilt by retelling this story of his past to the audience. He’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the way you would expect. He’s fully aware of the selfishness and inexcusability of his acts, and doesn’t shrink from portraying that. But where he’s the most unreliable is in his implications that any disaster that might have befallen his sister after his departure from the family was her own fault. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the scene between Laura and Jim, the “Gentleman Caller.”

The entire play is Tom’s memory, but Tom had no way of knowing what went on between Laura and Jim while he was in the next room. That scene is a fiction Tom creates with a fantasy Laura for the audience to consume. All she needs is confidence! Throw down your crutches and dance, and all will be well! This is the heart of Tom’s exorcism ritual. “Please believe this scene, audience, so I can be absolved of my guilt. Please believe that whatever might have happened to Laura was her own fault—her own choice.” He has created a Laura that absolves him of his guilt. Creating a fictional Laura as a scapegoat for his own cruel treatment of his family echoes our culture’s relentless scapegoating of the oppressed for their own oppression. Absolving Tom would simultaneously absolve the audience of any guilt they may be feeling about the way women, people with disabilities, and, in this production, people of color are treated in our culture. Portes’ final moment demolishes the possibility of absolution. She puts all the power in Laura’s hands and allows her to deny absolution to him and to us. It’s a powerful ending. I won’t reveal what happens, but watch for it. It’s small and quiet and immensely powerful.

If we have any hope of disrupting the multiple levels of containment of the disabled body in The Glass Menagerie, it can only be through staging the work with a disabled actor. The only possible way of creating space for disabled people, for holding even the smallest space for our voices, experiences, and lives, is to disrupt Tom’s memory with the phenomenological fact of a visibly disabled body on stage and allow the play to cohere around that body, allowing the play to cohere (in part) around the ways in which able-bodied people attempt to manage their experiences of people with disabilities and, in so doing, often marginalize and silence us, replacing our real bodies and voices with narratives of their own creation. Using a disabled actor as Laura then becomes a revolutionary act that begins the process of disrupting centuries of false, “acceptable” depictions of disabled bodies constructed in place of the real disabled bodies that were silenced and hidden.

Disability is a complex issue. There are numerous types of disability, and actors with disabilities are not, of course, interchangeable. Many types of disability are invisible, and that becomes a serious consideration when working in a primarily visual art form. Yet just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth considering. We are at the very beginning of considering these issues, and the way forward must be creating space for disabled bodies and voices, both on the stage and in gatekeeping positions. We’re opening a new door in this industry and just beginning the process of imagining what’s possible.

Melissa Hillman is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. She holds a PhD in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and has taught at Cal, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Maybeck High School. She has written for Huffington Post, Theatre Bay Area Magazine, Southern Theatre Magazine, Quartz, and many others, but most often writes for her own blog, Bitter Gertrude, found at bittergertrude.com

Click here to get tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing through July 30.

Posted in 2017 Season, The Glass Menagerie, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Join Philippa in Ashland this summer!

Join Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly and Cal Shakes Managing Director Susie Falk for an intimate and immersive theater trip to visit the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Features of the Tour include:

  • Choice of a 2-Night/3-Play or 3-Night/4-Play package
  • Accommodations at the elegant and centrally located Ashland Springs Hotel
  • Great seats to sold-out performances
  • Informal discussions with Philippa to share impressions after each play
  • Official OSF backstage tour
  • Guest appearances by Oregon Shakespeare Festival company members
  • Welcome reception & supper on Friday evening before the show
  • Saturday night gourmet dinner at Amuse, one of Ashland’s best rated restaurants
  • Daily breakfast at Ashland Springs

Play selection for our 3-Play Package:

  • Julius Caesar, directed by Cal Shakes favorite Shana Cooper
  • The Odyssey, directed by Mary Zimmerman
  • UniSon, a world-premiere musical based on the poetry of August Wilson, directed by Robert O’Hara

4-Play package will also include a choice of either:

  • Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, a World Premiere by Jiehae Park directed by Chay Yew OR
  • Shakespeare in Love, a U.S. Premiere based on the screenplay by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and directed by Christopher Liam Moore

Preliminary Itinerary (final details subject to change):

Friday, September 8
3:00pm Guests arrive and check in to Ashland Springs Hotel*
6:00pm Welcome Reception & Light Supper at the Ashland Springs Hotel
8:00pm Julius Caesar (Angus Bowmer Theatre)
Post-Show Meet Philippa on the Hotel’s Mezzanine for informal discussion

Saturday, September 9
6:30-10:00am Morning Deluxe Continental Breakfast available
FREE TIME
1:30pm UniSon (Angus Bowmer Theatre)
6:00pm Dinner at Amuse 8:00PM The Odyssey (Allen Elizabethan Theatre)
Post-Show Meet Philippa on the Hotel’s Mezzanine for informal discussion

Sunday, September 10
6:30-10:00am Morning Deluxe Continental Breakfast available
Check out by 11:00am
10:00am Backstage Tour**
1:30pm Shakespeare in Love (Angus Bowmer Theatre)** OR
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo (Thomas Theatre)**
5:30pm Sunday Supper with Philippa**

Monday, September 11
6:30-10:00am Morning Deluxe Continental Breakfast available
Check out by 11:00am**

  • 2-Night/3-Play Package: $1,400 per person double occupancy
  • 3-Night/4-Play Package: $1,750 per person double occupancy
  • Single Supplement: $100/night per person
  • Prices include a $600 tax-deductible contribution to Cal Shakes

This is a very special event, and space is limited. So reserve your spot now!

For questions or to make your reservation, contact Shanti Peterson, Donor Stewardship & Events Coordinator, at 510.899.4907 or speterson@calshakes.org.

* Transportation to and from Ashland is the responsibility of each guest. All local activities on the Tour are easily walkable. If you are interested in carpooling, we would be happy to connect you with other Tour participants in advance.

** Applies only to guests who purchase 3-Night/4-Play Package

Posted in 2017 Season, Ashland, Special Events | Leave a comment

Ask Philippa: The Glass Menagerie

“I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me,” says Tennesee Williams’ Amanda Wingfield. Looking back to genteel Southern roots that haven’t yielded the kind of life she imagined for herself, Amanda tries to shape success for her children, Tom and Laura. Amanda’s indomitable spirit and childlike optimism refuse to be quashed by experience, and her sassy humor peeps through the most dire situation to give us one of the most famous voices of 20th century American Theater. Looking back on his experience to bring forth the story of Amanda, her two children, and her absent husband, Tom unfolds, in The Glass Menagerie, the coming-of-age story of playwright Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play” for Tom, and it is a “memory play” for Williams, who, Gore Vidal has suggested, “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.”

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

The Glass Menagerie begins performances July 5 and continues through July 30. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

Posted in 2017 Season, Ask Philippa, The Glass Menagerie | 25 Comments

Lisa Portes on displacement, belonging, and the American Dream

Acclaimed Chicago director Lisa Portes visited Cal Shakes this spring for auditions and meetings in anticipation for her upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie. She sat down with Alicia Coombes, Publications Manager, to discuss her preliminary ideas and thoughts—what follows is edited and condensed for clarity.

Alicia Coombes: Why The Glass Menagerie, right now? What make this particular production special?

Lisa Portes: When Eric asked me about it sometime last summer, I was very excited about it. I’ve always loved Williams, and what I love particularly about this play is that it’s about a group of people who are displaced in their time and in their place.

In terms of [the matriarch] Amanda, she came from an elite family in the south, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. Laura has a disability, Tom is gay, and there’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in. Yet they’re all dreamers. Amanda’s dreaming of past glory, Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and “they all get along perfectly, Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is—actually all of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be who they are, but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream.

So I was interested in that idea, and then the election happened, and then I became even more interested in the idea of people who are displaced against an American Landscape. In this production, Amanda is played by an African-American woman. The story that we’re working on is that the kids’ father was Mexican (in the play he runs off to Mexico), and so we’re pushing what Williams was already doing by exploring who is displaced in this landscape right now, in a very real way. What I love about doing it here is that we are literally doing it against an American landscape: it’s outside, up against the California hills, which I love.

In terms of telling the story, [I’m interested in] who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. All of the characters are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves. I already felt that way, and after the election it only became more pressing, especially with the rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign.

AC: Regarding your casting choices: is this something you’ve wanted to explore in The Glass Menagerie in particular?

LP: All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center—it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latina director, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. So when I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century, early 1900’s. So I began to think, she could exist: Amanda as an African-American woman could exist, and that she ran off with the wrong guy (and that he left her) puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in that story; I became interested in her husband being Mexican (because as described he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico). The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.

AC: Dramaturgically, because you can’t change any of Williams’ words, are you running into anything that’s problematic, that you and the actors will need to solve in the rehearsal room, with regard to the text?

LP: Amanda as an African-American woman is tricky perhaps for some. On the one hand, folks might think there couldn’t possibly be a black former debutante in the U.S. in the 1930s.

But the thing is she could and did exist. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always [signifies] working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. One of the first black millionaires was actually a woman, Madame C. J. Walker! It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in 1910’s is absolutely viable.

On the other, Amanda says some racially problematic things in the text and they are indeed problematic. Every elite class has its appropriate and inappropriate ways of thinking of the folks that enjoy less privilege. There is colorism in the world of this Amanda Wingfield. What we do know is elitism in any culture comes at a cost, and she’s not above it. I don’t want Amanda’s problematic elitism to be the obstacle for ever casting a brilliant black actress as Amanda.

Another question I’m exploring in this production is: how do we reimagine who Americans are when we think of The Glass Menagerie? How do we reimagine the classic American landscape? How do we re-envision who is at the center of our classical canon in this country? That’s exciting to me in thinking of who Amanda could be, and who her kids could be, and who the Gentleman Caller could be.

AC: How do you see this play engaging with the idea of “The American Dream”?

LP: There have always been marginalized people in this country. The relationship to the American Dream is tenuous. Things have been shifting toward greater inclusivity and an awareness of equity and inclusivity, certainly in the American theater. I thought as a nation we were all moving towards greater equity, inclusion, and access to everything the American Dream has to offer. I mean, it hasn’t been perfect, God knows; when I was imagining this play, Obama was still our president and we were still deporting people, there was still racism, the Black Lives Matter movement began under his presidency. BUT then came this wave of campaign rhetoric, which deliberately targeted, othered and threatened very specific groups of people . And immediately post-election, we really began to see who got a seat at the table. Literally, who’s in the Cabinet? Well, the false sense of safety about an inclusive future certainly shattered.

So when it becomes as profoundly and visually apparent that certain people get access and certain people don’t, despite the fact that we’re all Americans. When you see folks now literally in fear for their lives and their livelihoods and their children—well many folks’ connection to the great American Dream is quite fragile. That to me is the center of the fragility in this play.

AC: Amanda started with way more choices than she ended up with.

LP: Yeah, as an African-American woman, her class buffered her, but since she no longer has class in this play, she no longer has access to those resources. Her access to the American Dream as a single black mother in the 1930s in the north, Laura’s access as a young disabled woman of color, Tom’s as a gay man of color—they’re all compromised. Jim, an able-bodied, straight man of color in this production, has found a way in, actually. He has a kind of optimism, but he also understands what it means to be othered. He’s not just a dorky guy going “all you gotta do is believe,” in this production he speaks to Laura from a place of connection.

AC: How are you addressing The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play”?

LP: I think when we think of Tennessee Williams we have this cultural archetype of gauziness, and sentimentality—and Tennessee Williams says himself, through Tom, that it’s a sentimental play. But I’m keyed more into the idea of memory. For myself and the designers: when you think about how you remember, you don’t remember “gauzily.” If you think about how you remember, you remember this detail on a blurry landscape, but this detail is very distinct.

So two things have affected the design: the idea of displacement, and the idea of memory as a memory-scape on which certain objects—pieces of clothing, people—appear. So you’ll see in the design that it’s quite an abstracted space like the plane of memory. It starts blank, and is formed as Tom begins to form his memory and as Amanda begins to try to shape the world around her. The actors are pulling pieces onto the set, so by the end you get a sense of most of the pieces, but they’re the pieces as Tom remembers them. The clothing they wear is not realistic with costume changes: he remembers this sweater that his mom used to wear, or that hat. We’re really using that idea of memory, instead of gauzy memories. It’s not like Salvador Dali, because that’s surreal, but think of that landscape, and objects on that landscape.

And then displacement: everything moves, all the pieces move, there is no resting place for anything, the father’s portrait isn’t hung on the wall, it kind of is picked up by Tom and then is set against a wall, so nobody has a place, everything can easily come out from under them.

What Annie’s come up with is a quite surprising [scenic] design in that it’s just not what you expect when you think of Williams. There’s nothing on the stage when you come in. You see pieces on either side, and then those pieces as they come to life in Tom’s memory, coming into the playing space.

Also, I wanted to highlight the hills behind the playing space, so we didn’t want to create a wall. I do believe that Tom shares the same space with the audience. He’s not in another space when he’s talking to us.

AC: Thanks so much for talking with me about The Glass Menagerie! I’m looking forward to seeing it as it develops. Any last thoughts for us?

LP: It’s a real science project, as I keep referring to it. Both in terms of the casting process and the design for this play plus performing outside! How do you do a four-character play on a big huge outdoor stage!? There have been a number of really fascinating challenges to try to create this Glass Menagerie— and I’m really excited to see how it all turns out! I have a series of hypotheses that we’re testing, and we’ll see, but I’m very thrilled about it. If it comes together like I think it will it’ll be a really fascinating production.

____________________________________________________________

Stay tuned for further details about casting and creative team for this production. The Glass Menagerie plays from July 5-30. Tickets available here

Lisa Portes is a Chicago-based director. She is a co-founder of the Latinx Theatre Commons and serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group.  Portes heads the MFA directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Posted in 2017 Season, Main Stage, The Glass Menagerie | 2 Comments

Arden: coming home through where we’ve never been before

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Decades ago my husband bought some land with a bunch of fellow-hippies in Mendocino, and we often go up there. When you wake in the night, the sky is coal-black, studded with stars. You might be surprised at a steady thud in the air, until you realize that in the unfathomable quiet you are listening to your own heartbeat. We are very solitary there —it’s a place of peace and renewal for us both, where we read and write, plant vegetables and harvest them, if the mice don’t get to them first.

We wonder—if we lived there permanently, would we shift from our state of intense privacy to share in the intrigues, news, gossip, community byways and through-lines, that are a part of any human group? But for now, what we feel there is the brief retreat from one world we love to another quite different one.

The woods in Boonville are our forest of Arden of sorts—but you don’t need a forest to make an Arden. Arden is a place, but more truly it’s a state of being. In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of exile, for some a banishment and for others a place of escape: for characters turned out of home, or alienated from it. But the amazing thing about dramatizing exiles is that they are on their way to being something else.

The figure of the “stranger in a strange land” haunts us from Exodus through to The Odyssey (look out for this theme in black odyssey, our stunning third play of the season) through to As you Like It. And as exiles, our characters search for home—whether it’s the place they once knew, or a new home, a self and relationships that are in some way recreated, resolved or renewed. This is what they dream of, anyway, as exiles. In a way I think the whole of America is currently in exile—many more people are literally turned out of their homes, lined along the street, huddled under blankets, whether in shame or despair or sheer escape from the cold. And there will be more. It is dangerous and frightening; the promise of renewal seems distant and faded. All the more reason to evoke it, to remember what it looks like, to insist on its possibility, through art.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

Posted in 2017 Season, As You Like It, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), Main Stage | 2 Comments