What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
I grew up on a farm in upstate New York with 5 brothers and sisters. My mother played the piano and my father had a tendency to sing everything “We’re coming to a stop sign. Look at that cow.” There was no special thrust on my parents’ part to expose us to art. It just happened. Spontaneously, we’d go to an outdoor concert, travel to Art Park outside of Buffalo, whatever was free or cheap to drag their brood to. My love for theatre started when my older brother was forced to audition for the role of the boy in Bye Bye Birdie when he was in high school. (He was short and they needed someone small.) He didn’t get in, but we went to see it and I was smitten with the magic. Soon thereafter, I spent every moment I could on listening to showtunes and reading plays that I would find in the local library – a great free source of entertainment when you have 6 kids. I stumbled into writing first writing poetry as an undergraduate. Later, I became a music teacher for a small Catholic school and needed a performance piece for my 4th and 5th graders – so I wrote them a show. That’s how I got into this very odd business.
Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I started writing children’s plays and musicals. I was afraid to write. “I can’t do that. That’s something that special people do.” But a friend saw my children’s shows and encouraged me. I joined the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in the early 90s and realized with some trepidation that I wanted to write plays as well. I started out by writing one act plays. I was (and am) drawn to themes that illuminate the complexity of who we are. My one-act Keys – my first play – is about a father having to dress his severely mentally handicapped son for the funeral of the young man’s mother. My first full-length (The Tool Shed) examines society’s reluctance to allow for anyone to change – specifically regarding Meghan’s Law. I love the challenge of getting into the mind of complex characters and puzzling out how to dramatize them – “How can I make a musical of Bonnie and Clyde and have the audience care about these murderers?” The result of that question was The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde. I’m presently doing research on Margaret Sanger – again a complex historical figure.
What inspired you to write THE UNBLEACHED AMERICAN?
When I was working on my Ph.D. in theatre I focused on 19th century African American theatre and the performance of race. I am also passionate about the history of the American Musical Comedy. And when I started reading about Ernest Hogan, a man who was profoundly influential in both of those realms, I was dumbfounded that he is essentially overlooked in history. Here was a man who was once considered the funniest man in the world and he is all but forgotten today. And like many of the brilliant African American comedians in the early 20th century, he died tragically young (Bob Cole, George Walker, etc.). I wanted to write a play of language and contrasts. The language of The Unbleached American is that of two highly sophisticated wits who would have been judged at the time by the plethora of stereotypes. Even in hindsight, most people today would judge an African American man from the rural south and a poor Irish American woman through the plate glass of stereotypes. I wanted to show two people who can utilize these stereotypes when they want, but are able to reveal their true selves as well. As far as the contrasts, I am drawn to the meeting of opposites, and this play is chock full of them: rich/poor; black/white; healthy/dying; male/female. The two characters of the piece are complex, funny and rich in their passions – but Sharon, Ernest’s Irish American nurse, would have been considered on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and Ernest, as an African American – despite his wealth – would have been not much better off than Sharon. The challenge for me was to write a convincing piece in which we really believe these two people fall in love over the course of the four scenes.
What is your personal mission as a playwright?
I seek out challenges. I don’t like doing the same thing twice. As for a mission? I guess it’s to take audiences on an emotional journey using the medium of theatre – which is a medium of language and structure, unlike film which is a medium of image and realism. I feel that as a playwright, it is my job to listen carefully to the voices of characters and to try to capture those voices as they work out conflicts in pursuit of their wants. Whether I’m writing a lyric, the book to a musical, a sex comedy, or a drama, the tools are basically the same: stay honest to the character and don’t compromise. It’s about problem solving. I try to avoid shortcuts (imperfect rhymes in lyrics, a character has to leave the room to answer a phone call so that we can hear the other two characters talk without the other one around, a less-than-plausible coincidence that neatly ties things up). But a mission? I guess I want you to feel something.