Nathan Ross Freeman's HANNAH ELIAS at La Mama (NYC) — AAPEX Interview , Hannah Elias , LaMama , Nathan Ross Freeman — AAPEX

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nathan Ross Freeman's HANNAH ELIAS at La Mama (NYC)

Nathan Ross Freeman

Jaz Dorsey interviews Nathan Ross Freeman, author of HANNAH ELIAS, winner of the AAPEX Best Historical Drama Award 2008. Check out the upcoming NYC reading of HANNAH ELIAS, directed by George Ferencz at the legendary La Mama theatre-- and don't miss this tale of mansions, murder and scandal in turn of the century New York.

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
Very little, actually. I was a percussionist, athlete (Track Scholarship to St. Joseph’s University, Philly) revolutionary, Political Scientist up 'til I was 22, in that order.

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I was hired as a paraprofessional right out of college, to teach remedial reading in an alternative school in Philly. I discovered theatre as a way to address remedial reading and behavioral modification for, then termed, Socially, Emotionally Disturbed Adolescents. Wrote my first play "Where Is Momma" for a class of pregnant teens who were both single parents and living in single parent house holds. Temple University celebrated the work at Walk Auditorium under the dramaturgy of the renowned Rudy Wallace. I also directed the play. It was horribly staged, but the content brought the audience to tears and effectively created a new department at the alternative school. I remember sitting the last of 3 nights after everyone was gone from the theatre and staring at the ghost light and feeling the melancholic rush that is theatre. I remember the very moment in that empty theatre falling deeply, deeply in love.

More, though, I recognized theatre in its live presentation as the most effective medium for art to do something. The potential to affect immediate and systemic change. So, Theatre and Teen Education became my calling. I forsook any and all previous ambitions for the love of theatre, and later, film.

What inspired you to write HANNAH ELIAS and what are some of the adventures you have had in researching and writing the play?
A close, close friend and colleague, actor and partner in the development of Hannah Elias, Johnnie “Blue” Gardner, a revolutionary historian, loved the hidden legends published in J. A. Roger’s books. He found Roger’s account of Hannah Elias in Sex And Race: Volume II. In 1991 Blue brought me the story. To paraphrase Blue in his attack, “Hey, Nate, you have got to check out this story about a black woman, Hannah Elias. It is the most incredible story I have ever discovered.” I said great. I will get around to it. This went on for 3 years. Finally he cornered me, sat me down and we examined the account. I have yet to forgive myself for waiting so long. I immediately took all projects off the board and we began convincing Larry Leon Hamlin of the NC Black Rep (producer of the National Black Theatre Festival) to create a Hannah Elias development workshop, working with professional actors.

For various and sundry reasons the workshops didn’t pan out and Blue and I decided to develop Hannah Elias ourselves. I wrote the script. Blue co-starred as Cornelius Williams in a showcase production at Winston Salem State University. Were it not for Johnnie “Blue” Gardner, we would not be having this interview. Make sure you get Blue’s take on our trek with Hannah Elias. He has veritably lived with her.

The adventure in researching the script was amazing. It was like a whodunit. We hired an intern from NC School of the Arts to travel to DC and NYC to research the facts. She was blocked and turned away at every pass, including the Tilden Trust which Andrew Haswell Green founded to create NYC Libraries. Eventually her father, a DC lawyer, took her off the project telling her it was not a subject to be snooping around about. We’re talking about the death of Andrew Haswell Green, after all, the Father of Greater New York.

So we scrounged every newspaper article from October 1904 to 1906 that followed the enormous truly, truly stranger that fiction accounts of Hannah Elias. The most extraordinary gift the play offers is the standing mystery of Whatever happened to Hannah Elias. It’s as if, after the ruling by the Supreme Court on the law suits brought against her, she disappeared into thin air. So the audiences that will experience Hannah will have more than a post cocktail discussion. The play will create a compulsive journey for buffs to find Hannah’s legacy, offspring and heritage. And every poetic license scene is carefully crafted to reflect the facts. Yet, it still stands to reveal even more details that we are eager discover. Many, many New Yorkers don’t even know who Hannah Elias or Andrew Haswell Green are.

If you got on your"theatre soapbox" today, what is the one thing you would rant about?
How theatre is nowhere near dead. How technology and electronic media will not only NOT bury theatre, but, indeed, in the end, lead everyone inexorably to view theatre as the ultimate visual-audio sensory experience. You can only get so virtual before our brains want to smell, taste, touch, see and hear in the Now. It is my firm knowing that we are headed for a Theatre Renaissance. There is nothing, nothing
like the close encounter stare that possesses a person after the Curtain falls on the first play they have witnessed. Nothing! Remember yours?

To learn more about the free reading Thursday, February 2nd at 7:30PM,
please click the post's title.

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