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Saturday, October 18, 2008


I've not written for days, and it was certainly not for lack of material ... .

To the contrary, It has been more a case of allowing feelings to amass without relief for lack of the time to record them. It's always this way. I remember what I want to say while idling at a stop light crushed in afternoon traffic; while standing in line at the bank; or squeezing avocados at the green grocers ... then the thoughts slip into what should not yet be "the past" and are lost.

Some of those are hard to write about for other reasons. There is the new but (apparently) ongoing (past two weeks) strange brief relationship with a professional photographer. When I've worked through and understand it more fully "where the words go" ... I'll write about it.

There are also some after and still burning effects of the Eugene O'Neill/Paul Robeson festival still suspended in the air and being processed. Interesting. What has followed over the past couple of weeks is reaffirming that growth doesn't stop with age. The experience of "All God's Chillun Got Wings" has provided a way to grow beyond my presumed limits. Silly? Maybe not.

In subsequent conversations at a recent luncheon with two friends who attended the last of the 3 performances I learned that "Chillun" (as do most of O'Neill's works) turns out to be autobiographical as well. Yes. That had completely escaped me - though I pride myself on a good sense of both theater and literature, and some familiarity with the body of the work of this particular playwright since becoming associated with the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Site -- at least peripherally through my own work with the NPS.

I'd missed so much while preoccupied with the racial implications. The Robeson role of Jim Harris had blinded me to the main story that I should have been able to see had that not been so. I missed it.

Learned over lunch (yes -- goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and arugula, grapes and melon, with fancy crackers) that the lead characters; Jim, the submissive black husband; and Ella; the abusive schizophrenic white wife had been given the names of the author's parents; James and Ella O'Neill. (I'd failed to notice that and it is a key to understanding the play.) Or that Ella's obsessive determination to prevent Jim's ever attaining his goal of becoming an attorney mirrored O'Neill's father's acting ambitions, though he did reach limited success over the course of his career. One can surely guess at Ella's effect upon his ambitions over the course of their troubled lifetime together. The real life Ella was addicted to morphine. I'm familiar enough with the narrative of their lives but had missed the metaphor. Maybe I need to go back and -- using this broader perspective -- read the troublesome play again. This time free of the effects of the emotional effects of the "n" word. Obviously, the layering of realities that characterize O'Neill's work is why we honor him as American's greatest playwright and why the Pulitzer would be awarded to him for a 4th time.

I might have missed all that had it not been for the conversation over lunch with two friends who were not "of color" and who were therefore free to have a broader view of meanings, and to experience the complexities that were lost on me. I find myself wondering how often in life I may have allowed the narrowing of an experience simply because I was unable to get beyond race?

On the evening that my friends saw the play the talk-back between the audience and the cast lasted a long 40 minutes. Everyone came away with good feelings that some kind of threshold has been crossed, and that "Chillun" (with a Q&A) should be performed far and wide. That its presentation was extremely timely, and that the nation is finally ready to move -- together-- into these conversations. I'm so proud of the National Park Service's role in helping to bring this work out of mothballs and back onto the stage -- and of my own role in acting (albeit) briefly as consultant to the project.

Maybe there were lunching ladies throughout the valley last week -- and, just maybe, we were all moving ever closer toward a kind of atonement.

I think that I'll look back on this year's Festival as a pivotal place in my theater learning curve. The ability to see the human story -- somewhere beyond the racial story may be something I can share with my grandchildren in some casual way. But then they're growing up in a very different world than the one that produced my generation and may have been spared the limitations I'm sensing in myself.


Photo: From this year's production held at the Village Theater in Danville, California.

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