Saturday, July 26, 2008

The actor and the playwright ... two icons out of the context of their times ...

I learned some months ago that the Eugene O'Neill Foundation associated with the National Park Service historic site in Danville, California, was considering the staging of "All God's Chillun Got Wings," a play the brooding playwright wrote and produced in 1924. It will be the centerpiece of this year's Eugene O'Neill Fall Festival. The play featured legendary singer/actor Paul Robeson. At the time Robeson was a 26 year-old Pullman porter with advance degrees and dreams of greatness, plus a following in the art world as the result of his growing reputation as a dramatic baritone.

Robeson was one of five children born to a runaway slave father and a mother from a Quaker family that worked for the abolition of slavery in Princeton, New Jersey. His father graduated from Lincoln University; a major accomplishment for those times. Robeson, himself, graduated from Rutgers University on a 4-year scholarship where his athletic prowess on the gridiron was equaled by his law degree and later world acclaim on the concert stage.

The two artists came together in the creation and production of "All God's Chillun" which brought Robeson to the Broadway stage in one of the earliest of O'Neill's most controversial plays. Though O'Neill received mixed reviews for his script which brought hate mail and bomb threats, Robeson seems to have fared relatively well in the role of Jim Harris. "Chillun" would be the first of 3 plays O'Neill would cast him in; "Emperor Jones," and "The Hairy Ape" would follow despite negative public reaction. Robeson is reported as having been troubled by the role of Jim Harris, a submissive black husband to an abusive white wife -- and tried to influence the way the role was played. There are indications in reading news clippings of reviews that it was at times an uneasy alliance.

The role of Jim was viewed as stereotypically demeaning and (by today's standards) hopelessly naive. Nonetheless, I was excited at the prospect of the Foundation's courageously taking on this staging at a time and in a place where it would be least expected. That being so, I asked to be assigned as liaison to the Foundation's planning committee since the Eugene O'Neill park site belongs to our 4-park consortium. Great, right?

Since accepting the assignment I've had a chance to read a synopsis of the play and to meet with the committee. The planning group and the artistic director were wonderful. It was easy to fall into their rhythm and to defer any concerns I'd had early-on about the play itself. Having never read it, but having recently viewed a repeat of PBS's "American Experience" documentary on the life of "America's greatest playwright", Eugene O'Neill, I had a sense of excitement about what may lie ahead. This would be new ground for me in my work -- and in an artistic field where I've great interest but little experience; a new and welcomed challenge.

The play was a hard read for me. Even with the allowances I was making for the times it represents and the social climate in which it was created and produced in the early Twenties -- the dialog was even more repugnant than I imagined. The lens through which the famed playwright viewed African American males was so distorted -- so naive -- that I wondered how on earth it could ever be staged without resulting in the same kind of public response suffered by the (I believe) well-intentioned New Yorker satiric "Obama" cover that brought such negative reactions from even the most liberal and sophisticated of readers.

I'm firmly convinced that there's a way to do this. I've no doubt that the director and the cast and the committee are approaching this production in the spirit of joining the new and long-deferred national conversation on race that we're so in need of. How these words and concepts will play before ethnically-diverse audiences is an unknown. Will the generous use of the "n" word be unforgivably offensive in mixed company? Any altering of the script would be unthinkable, of course, but with little collective memory of the period -- can we dare to evoke those unresolved emotions? Will the 70 minutes that "Chillun" takes to play out be supplemented by enough after-the-show Q&A to defuse feelings of embarrassment and not reinforce those same stereotypes O'Neill may have intended to expose through his work? Have we yet reached the point where -- in an otherwise "white" community -- we can retain enough compassion and generosity of spirit to get us through such an evening without increasing the distance between our worlds? Will these be risks worth taking?

The answers to those questions are illusive in this moment, but I think it's precisely at these edges that the country and the world can now explore new possibilities in human and race relations. O'Neill and Robeson and the O'Neill Foundation and hard-working producers and directors in the theater world may be leading us through these earlier works -- helping us to forge new attitudes through presenting old images of lives that illustrate so painfully where we've been. Maybe it's our role now to ferret out the new directions through revisiting a past that we've yet to process -- and that may indicate how compassion and understanding might move us toward a more enlightened future.

The casting (all Equity players) is in progress and the play will be performed as a part of the Eugene O'Neill Festival where there will be the awarding, posthumously, of honors to the late great and legendary Paul Robeson. His son, Paul Robeson, Jr., and his wife will be arriving from New York to receive the honor. They will be guests of the Foundation and the City of Danville for the 3-day weekend of performances of "All God's Chillun Got Wings" and other related activities. There's much to be excited about -- despite the quiet concerns that I'm sure are shared by the committee though -- with only one meeting under my belt -- those fears have yet to be voiced. I only know one other member of the group and I'm the only person of color in the room at this point. It will take at least another meeting to break through to candor, I suppose. But given my ever constant sense of urgency -- that state we'll move through ever so quickly, I'm sure. This is that place where age kicks in and ceremony gets booted to the curb because time is a luxury that I can no longer afford.

How we work our way through the anticipated difficulties that may be associated with this project will be interesting if troubling at times. I'm looking forward to the experience. It's another opportunity for learning, and I've never ducked out on occasions that present such lively reminders that I'm alive!

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