Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I seem to have worked it through ... the initial response was one of confusion -- but we've grown past that now ...

Once beyond the visceral response to the reading of the script of "All God's Chillun," and a long conversation with Cousin Doug (columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet), I was off and running. Never one to turn my back on controversy without reason, the challenge of the material soon outweighed any discomfort I found with either Eugene O'Neill's writings or with the new acquaintances with whom I'll be working over the next few weeks. All it took was some applied logic to move into what will be a fascinating new chapter.

This play is important and it is timely. There must be sensitivity and care taken to "do the work" required to make it accessible to today's audiences, but that can be accomplished, we're certain. The project is in good hands with this director, and the material -- though challenging -- provides a backdrop for the kind of dialog that needs to occur in these changing times if we're to grow beyond present limitations; and there are many still.

In the wake of the controversial New Yorker "Obama" cover -- the most constructive critics suggested that the satire would have been obvious had the editors taken the time to bring their readers along by adding a small statement that brought them in on the joke; something that indicated that we were all on the same side. Without that caveat, those of us who were regular readers (while "getting" the joke) still felt fearful that others would see the work as supporting the very things that were being satirized. There was nothing to do after the fact other than to become defensive; as did the New Yorker staff.

Doug and I agreed that the addition of a unifying 8-10 minute prologue from the stage that provides context for the times (1924); that talked about the courage shown by bringing this play to an audience that had never before seen black actors on stage in roles that were normally played by white actors in black-face (think D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation"); to an audience that would find any relationship between a black man and a white woman totally unacceptable; and to an audience in a nation where marriage between such couples was illegal in most states. There must be some device that allows us to view the play from a place of common ground. Without preparation, oft-repeated words like "nigger" would distract to the point where some members of the audience would be unable to receive the important messages that O'Neill intended to convey. I'm not at all sure that I wouldn't be among them. The emotional power of the word is a spoiler that I've not yet -- and may never -- move beyond.

Doug is a brilliant journalist and a sensitive writer on the subject of race. He's lived both on the west coast and in the deep south so brings a level of understanding to the subject that I may lack. He's agreed to create such a prologue for me to present as a draft to the committee for consideration. I trust his judgment and also theirs. I believe that we're all on the same side in wanting to make this work. We all share deep respect for both O'Neill and Robeson and a sincere wish to be worthy of their efforts enough to want to bring this important work from their turbulent past into our still troubled times. If we can add a Q&A to the end of each performance in order to allow us all to exhale before leaving -- we'll have accomplished what we've needed to.

Maybe my job here is to be the conduit through which we can face into the winds of change by my being open and clear with my feelings in order to encourage the same from those with whom I'll be working over the next few weeks. This may be the place from which we all grow just a little.

Now I need to think about how we can broaden the experience so that our audiences will reflect our changing times, demographically; a state in which the art world in far ahead of the general public.

We're still a work in progress ...

But we're trying, Mr. O'Neill.

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