Wednesday, September 22, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #22 "The Taking of Miss Janie" by Ed Bullins

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #22

The Taking of Miss Janie by Ed Bullins (pictured above)

I found this play in a collection I have of "Famous American Plays of the 1970s". It is not an easy play to read. The play begins with a white woman, Janie, in bed with her black friend named Monty. She is confronting him after he has just raped her. When this play opened in the 1970s, Bullins said described this scenario as a metaphor for race relations, but it is not an easy metaphor. The play won an Obie for Distinguished Playwriting, and also a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, but it is not a play I can imagine being produced easily in these times, though it was revived in 2006. In an interview with NPR (that you can find by clicking here) the director of the revival, Ms. Shauneille Perry, had this to say:

"It is a question of perception because I'd like to take note that the play is called “The Taking of Miss Janie.” And Mr. Bullins, himself, in various interviews, has said it was a friendly rape, quote/unquote. I'm not exactly sure what that means but I do know that in the play it's quite clear in the lines that Janie does not leave. She's not literally accosted and so on.

"In fact, she presents herself at the end. So, I think, Bullins was saying that Janie represents America, Monty represents black America and it was the black America in the taking of white America.I don't like to speak too much for the author but I think the word, rape, which I supposed is used for publicly purposes to get people in. But I think it's an overstatement of what actually happened and remembering that it's called “The Taking of Miss Janie.”

I don't know that I completely agree with this sentiment having read the play, nor do I think there is really such a thing as a "friendly rape".  And unfortunately, metaphor or not, I found the device problematic to say the least. Which is somewhat unfortunate, as there is still much to be taken in by this play. Bullins is a fearless writer--- he has won many, many awards--- and has a great deal to say by inverting stereotypes. Much of this play is a fascinating portrait and rendition of the turbulent 1960s, with many issues that are still so sadly prevalent today. 

My favorite line comes from Peggy, when talking, from the future, about the 1960s. She says:

"We all failed. Failed ourselves in that serious time known as the sixties. And by failing ourselves we failed in the test of the times. We had so much going on for us... so much potential..."

Ed Bullins has written many, many plays, won many awards and received many grants. He currently holds a distinguished Artist-In-Residence at Northeastern University, and was once the Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. He is also considered one of the most prominent voices of the Black Arts Movement. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #21 "One Flea Spare" by Naomi Wallace

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #21

One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace

One Flea Spare  is set in a plague ravaged London in 1665, which is perhaps why it is perfect reading for today, for right now, this minute. I have read that Naomi Wallace was inspired by Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King. According to Laura Michiel's essay Times of Contagion: The Social(ist) Politics of Plague in Naomi Wallace's "One Flea Spare", to Wallace, "these events became linked, because spatial barriers broke down, obliging the rich and poor to share a common space." And indeed, this play is very much about class, particularly in the time of a mass illness. Lower-class guard Kabe at one paint preaches, "you will see who it is that dies, their mouths open in want, the maggots moving inside their tongues making their tongues wag as though they were about to speak. But they will never speak again in this world. The hungry. The dirty. The abandoned. That's who dies. Not the fancy and the wealthy..."

One need only look today to see things have not changed a great deal in this regard. The effects of the current pandemic (as well as upcoming disasters such as climate change) do effect the poor by a very noticeable margin. And while this project isn't necessarily about making any kind of political statement, I think it is worth mentioning how art, even historical art, can be a powerful reflection of our present-day lives. 

The story centers on a wealthy couple who are about to flee London to try to outrun the plague, but are forced to stay and quarantine (literally forced--- boarded inside and guarded) when a sailor, Bunce, stumbles into their house thinking it is empty. A young girl of 12, Morse, has also become a stowaway in the house without them realizing. Because these uninvited guests were spotted by guards getting into the home, the wealthy couple, the Snelgraves, cannot leave. The four are stuck together. 

And Wallace is very good at showing how this quarantine-by-force breaks down the usual societal norms as time passes. And as one may notice in the quote above, Wallace does not shy away from the sad and the gruesome details of death, whether describing the pits where the dead are thrown, or those waiting to die and the "tokens" on their skin, black boils of pain. 

The meat of the play is how the characters interact, and Mr. Snelgrave, the master of the house, immediately keeps his "rightful" place and makes Bunce and Morse his servants. But structure cannot last forever. Not in quarantine. There is emotional and physical manipulation, violence, and odd desire. 

Which is not to say that the play is without humor and beauty. Naomi Wallace is also a poet, and her dialogue is lyrical and effortlessly descriptive. My favorite character is Morse, a challenging role no question, for any young actress. She was a servant girl who watched her mother get the "tokens" of the plague, and saw her master throw her mother in the cellar behind a locked door, and gave her no food or water. From then, she was on her own, until locking down as part of this very strange, intense group.

The title One Flea Spare comes from a poem, The Flea, by John Donne, and Wallace uses this and the Brecht quote "Corruption is our only hope" as epigraphs in the printed version of the play. The play originally premiered in London in October of 1995, then was part of the Humana Festival in 1996. It  opened in New York at the Public Theater in 1997, and won an Obie award for best play. The cast included Dianne Wiest  and a young Mischa Barton. The play also won a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the 1996 Joseph Kesserling Prize, and the 1996 Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award.

This is my first introduction to the works of Naomi Wallace, and I anxiously look forward to learning more about her work. She is a MacArthur Fellow who has written many plays and several screenplays. I hope to learn more about her work soon. In the meantime, I highly recommend this play, though it may not be for the squeamish. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #20 "Tea and Sympathy" by Robert Anderson

 




I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #20

Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson

When reading Tea and Sympathy today, I couldn't help but feel this successful Broadway play from 1953 (it ran for over 700 performances) is certainly dated. But the fact that the play made me angry and sad also demonstrates what no one can deny--- it is still relevant. It shouldn't have to be--- one wishes it were a relic, something for people of today to look at and say, "Wow, can you believe people used to be like this?"  But it's not. It is still timely in its way. 

Tom goes to a an all-boys private school. He has a huge crush on Laura, a house mother at his dorm, who's marriage to Bill, a real "man's man" who wants to be headmaster someday, is not what she hoped it would be. Right at the beginning, bully Ralph has spread a rumor that Tom and a teacher named Mr. Harris were discovered swimming naked together--- it is not true. Mr. Harris, in his only scene, asks Tom if he told the Dean something had happened, but Tom is completely in the dark. Harris is going away. 

Laura, upset about these rumors that will affect Tom, and have gotten Harris fired without proof, confronts her husband, only to be told that men know when other men are off. And for the rest of the play, Tom is miserable, trying to prove that he is a man, even though his well-meaning roommate Al tells him he needs to cut his hair and "not walk so light". But even Al fails his friend, and, after pressure from his dad, intends to move out of the room. 

Bill, unprofessionally, spreads rumors about Tom, perhaps even jealous of the lad, because his wife has an interest in his well being. 

This play is tough: it is an early example of an American play dealing with sexual orientation, even though Tom is not gay, just sensitive and in love with Laura, who he can't be with. It talks a lot about when it means to be a "man" and criticizes what is known today as toxic masculinity. It criticizes notions that bullying is actually good for young men and helps them grow up. It criticizes the notion that men cannot be sensitive, cannot weep from emotion, cannot be different. These are all pretty impressive traits for a play in 1953. 

It was hard for me to read it at times, as I was called homophobic slurs constantly in high school, and had rumors spread about me being gay. Fortunately, I have always known that being called gay isn't an insult, even if it isn't true. There is nothing wrong with being gay. I would rather be mistaken for gay than be mistaken for being a misogynist, homophobic jerk. And even though the character Tom doesn't have that luxury, I do think the play is trying to send that message. 

The ending of course, which I won't spoil here, is perhaps problematic, but still, much better than I expected it to be. Laura is a great female character, very well rounded, and while not all of her motivations ring true, I imagine she was quite ahead of her time. 

As I wrote above, the play was a big success, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Deborah Kerr, Leif Erickson, Dick York and John Kerr (no relation). The play was then made into a movie in 1956, with Deborah, Leif and John reprising their stage roles. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #19 "Fences" by August Wilson

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #19

Fences by August Wilson

The first play assigned for my Script Analysis class at Boston University was August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which still stands as one of my favorite contemporary plays, and a play that really opened my eyes. Growing up a little white boy in a very white town, I certainly had a great deal to learn. 

Over the years, many of Mr. Wilson's plays, but, for whatever reason, I had never read Fences until today. The play premiered at Yale Rep in 1985, and moved to Broadway in 1987 with nearly the same cast (including the likes of the great James Earl Jones, Courtney B. Vance, and Mary Alice) and still directed by Lloyd Richards, who writes the introduction for the edition of the play I own, and who was a truly wonderful theater artist (he was a guest professor at Bennington my senior year, but I didn't have a class with him, sadly). The play ran for over 500 performances, won the Pulitzer and a Tony for Best Play (Richards, Jones, and Alice all won Tonys, too). 

Fences is the sixth play in what is called Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle", and is set in the 1950s at the beginning of the play. The epigraph from my edition:

"When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in his Largeness and Laws"
----August Wilson

And indeed, this play is very much about the sins of our fathers. It is also about forgiveness. These days, it is hard not to use the phrase "toxic masculinity," as, in all honesty, that seems to be protagonist Troy Maxson's tragic downfall. It is about what is inherited, and what we can rise above. Troy Maxon left his abusive father at the age of 14, spent time in jail, then did his best to shake away the sins of his father and start a life with Rose, who knows his faults but does her best to look deeper--- though she is too strong a character to be a made fool of. Troy has his family, and wants to take care of them the best he can, vehemently taking responsibility like he believes a man ought to. But there is that place inside of him, the same place where his stories come from, that is a kind of dark and bitterness. The man who could have played baseball, but felt it was denied him, so he denies his son a chance at any sports scholarship. The man who admits his wife is the best woman he could ever hope for, but who also indulges on the side, and feels little guilt for it.  Troy is a complex character who is often not very likeable--- mainly because we all know such contradictions honestly exist in every human.

Viola Davis, who starred with Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of the play, said of August Wilson's writing: "He captures our humor, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk."  Washington, for his part, has been very involved in bringing Wilson's plays to the screen, saying, "The greatest part of what's left of my career is making sure that August is taken care of."

Fences is  a quick read because Wilson is a great storyteller, and it is also lyrical, because he is a poet. There is no question we lost a giant when he passed in 2005 at the age of 60. But talk about a legacy he left behind. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #18 "The Good Doctor" by Neil Simon

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #18

The Good Doctor by Neil Simon

Neil Simon hardly needs an introduction, as he is perhaps the most prolific Broadway play hitmaker of the last eighty years or so, starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961. Mr. Simon died in 2018 at the age of 91, over thirty plays, 20 screenplays, and dozens of television sketches and teleplays to his credit. I can also not stress enough how every student of playwriting, or any kind of writing in general, should read his memoir Rewrites, which follows his early years of learning how to write for the stage and all the work that goes into crafting a play. His second memoir, The Play Goes On, is also a valuable look at his life, though not as heavily focused on the craft of writing. Simon won a Pulitzer for his play Lost In Yonkers, and as well as a handful of Tonys, a Golden Globe, and many other awards along the way. 

Despite some of the critical honors and his unprecedented (and never duplicated) success as an American playwright, Simon was never taken as seriously as many of his contemporaries, as though his prolific nature and the fact he was writing comedies somehow meant he was pandering to audiences, or not a craftsman worth the admiration of say, a Pinter (Pinter actually loved The Odd Couple) or a Tennessee Williams. Underestimating Simon's importance and artistry is a mistake, I think. While he had some stinkers (what writer hasn't?), the truth is, he was solid at structure, creating human characters people related to, and, as his career progressed, someone who wasn't afraid of having real pain in his comedies. Famed actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen compared his comedies to the works of Anton Chekhov.

And that's the perfect segue to talk about The Good Doctor, Neil Simon's play that is a love letter to the master, Chekhov himself. The play features "The Writer" (played by the late, great Christopher Plummer) in the original Broadway production), a stand-in for Chekhov, who talks about his love for/compulsion for writing, as he introduces sketches based on Chekhov short stories, with scenes called "The Sneeze," "The Governess", "Surgery," "Too Late For Happiness," "The Seduction," "The Drowned Man," "The Audition," "A Defenseless Creature", and "The Arrangement."  It is a bright, breezy, fun read, with Simon clearly showing much love and care to the source material and its writer, a kind of "pupil appreciation for the master" sort of piece. I can imagine audiences having a great time, so long as they don't mind watching a collection of scenes as opposed to one longer piece. I daresay this would be fun to act in as well. 

While I enjoyed reading it, it is lighter fare, even for Simon. Each scene builds to a kind of punchline and little more, and while Simon is skillful in tying them together with the character of "The Writer," the play does feel a little disjointed.  

But it is good old fashioned entertainment, nonetheless.

The Good Doctor ran for 203 performances in 1973 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, and was nominated for Four Tonys, with Frances Sternhagen winning one for Best Featured Actress in a play. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #17 "Jack and Jill: A Romance" by Jane Martin

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #17:

Jack and Jill by Jane Martin

Jane Martin, often called the "mysterious Jane Martin" because she never wants to be seen in person, first came to attention with the collection of female monologues, Talking With. Her play, Keely and Du, which deals with the controversial subject of abortion, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and won an American Theatre Critics Association Award for Best New Play. The award was accepted on her behalf by playwright Jon Jory. Jon Jory also directs the original productions of  most of her plays. 

Because Jane Martin is (most likely) Jon Jory. 

I am not telling tales out of school here, though Jon Jory has never publicly admitted to being Jane Martin (though even his Wikipedia page mentions that he is rumored to being Jane Martin). My playwriting professor at Bennington, Gladden Schrock, who knows Mr. Jory and worked with him, flat out told us that Mr. Jory wrote as Jane Martin when he wanted to explore themes that dealt a great deal women and gender issues. 

Whether Jory is Jane Martin or not (he probably is), or whether maybe it has become like Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton and others can take over, is not really a big deal. If a writer feels freer to explore certain things through a pseudonym, more power to them. I wouldn't take it away from anyone. 

And really, it has nothing much to do with my reading of Jack and Jill: A Romance, except, at times, one begins to wonder about certain tropes that Jill espouses, that sometimes feels like a male feminist writing from the point of view of what they perceive a feminist's mindset to be. Or maybe I just feel that way because I know the rumors about Jory being Martin, who knows? 

But I don't think so.

Jack and Jill: A Romance premiered at the Humana Festival directed by (surprise!) Jon Jory. It is a two-character play, with dressers who help dress the actors onstage. Jack and Jill meet at a library, begin a relationship, marry, divorce and meet again. It moves fast with accessible dialogue that is often witty and clever. Both Jack and Jill have monologues directly to the audience throughout, giving us more insight into their characters, but, really, it is the back and forth between characters that is most engaging (at least when Martin restrains from some of the preachiness). 

I don't think there is anything new about Jack and Jill: A Romance, and there wasn't anything new in 1996 when it premiered, not even the uncertain ending. The theme is about men and women connecting. The edges that overlaps and the areas that we don't understand about one another. 

But just because something is familiar territory, doesn't mean it isn't told in an interesting, entertaining manner. I imagine that this show could be quite the crowd pleaser with the right cast, and a director who knows how to keep the action moving between the many scene changes (this would die onstage with too much time between scenes... absolutely die). And to its credit, the piece attempts to explore relationships and issues between the genders, and for the most apart avoids certain stereotypes. 

I can't help but say that, in the final analysis, I found the play pretty much harmless. I could watch it and be fine and enjoy myself. 

But I can't imagine it sticking with me. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

30 PLAYS IN 30 DAYS: Play #16: "Morning, Noon, and Night" by Israel Horovitz, Terrence McNally, and Leonard Melfi

 


I have decided for the month of September to read 30 plays in 30 days. It is my belief that, if possible, a play should be read in one sitting to get a better inherent sense of the dramatic arc. Each day, I will write a short post here about the play of the day.

Play #16

Morning, Noon, and Night by Israel Horovitz ("Morning"), Terrence McNally ("Noon") and Leonard Melfi ("Night")

This trio of one-act plays that comprised a full evening by the Circle Square on Broadway must have seemed very strange to the audiences... for one, these do not particularly feel like Broadway shows of that era (1968), but rather the type of plays you might find Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway. In fact, Clive Barnes in writing about the production (which he liked, and included in the "Best American Plays 1967-1973) called it an "invasion" of Off-Broadway onto Broadway. The three playwrights had certainly garnered some attention previously, Isarael Horovitz with The Indian Wants the Bronx which starred a young Al Pacino (who would collaborate with Mr. Horovitz again, including on an underrated movie I really like called Author! Author!.... side note: Horovitz is the father of Adam Horovitz, the Beastie Boy), Terrence McNally, the only one who had been on Broadway before, with And Things That Go Bump In The Night, and Melfi who had had plays produced all over the world. 

The show was not successful on Broadway, closing after 42 performances. Each play is for five actors, and the five actors were Charlotte Rae, Robert Klein, Sorrell Booke, John Heffernan, and Jane Marla Robbins. Despite the fact that the show was not a huge success, Charlotte Rae was nominated for a Tony. 

Clive Barnes wrote that the theme of each play was "Outrage"... I definitely agree in terms of Horovitz's Morning. The play is about a black family that has taken a miracle pill that turns them all white. While I understand the satire, and how Horovitz is intentionally playing with stereotypes, I cannot imagine this play being produced today without controversy. While one can appreciate the fact that the play, perhaps, is trying to give white people a mirror in which to see what the black experience in America may be like, it is tough to read stage directions saying things like "acting really black." Don't get me wrong--- I am a big one for satire, and I do think this play is not punching down, but taking shots at white culture liberal lip service... but it is still tough. I can't imagine watching a production with a group of white actors doing stereotypical voices as the play often suggests without feeling completely uncomfortable. 

On a side note:  Mr. Horovitz, before his death in 2020, was accused of sexual harassment by six different woman when they worked for him in the early 1990s (years after this play). He apologized, and his son, Adam, sided with the women, saying he believed them. 

Noon may be the most accessible of the three one acts. It is no secret that the late Mr. McNally (dying in 2020 of Covid-19, sadly) was very funny, and this short play is a sexual farce of sorts, with people answering a personal ad for a sexed-up afternoon with the mysterious "Dale", who never shows up. We have a gay young man, a stuffy uptight academic, a bored, married young looking to give steamy French lessons, and a married couple into Sado-Masochism. Hilarity and confusion abounds when they all realize Dale perhaps has brought them all here as a kind of prank. 

Night by Leonard Melfi is a strange (really a strange) night funeral scene. Though not explicitly stated, the attendees appear to be his wife, his mistress, his boyfriend and perhaps a friend. The deceased, a "cocky little bastard" named Cock Certain apparently wanted a night funeral. And he got one. A very strange one, that is ultimately interrupted by a man in a white suit burying a dog. 

So, yeah--- definitely an Off or Off-Off-Broadway invading Broadway, as Mr. Barnes suggested. And I think that's very cool.