Theatre Mirror Cricket's Notebook - "An Open Letter"

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"Cricket's Notebook"

note: entire contents copyright 2017 by Larry Stark




THERE'S A NEW COMPANY IN BOSTON!



"THE FRONT PORCH ARTS COLLECTIVE" (https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/about/front-porch-arts-collective/) will be in residence at The Central Square Theatre for a year, and next week-end their first production will be a staged reading of Marcus Gardley's play "The House That Will Not Stand" ---as first in "The God's Closet Reading Series" of at least six. The date is 26 March, at 7:00 p m., and reservations for this reading are recommended.

I think the founders of The Front Porch Collective --- Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Dawn Meredith Simmons and Keith Mascoll --- were thinking in parallel with me about inter-racial possibilities in both theatre and society. So I was So Glad to hear about their new company.

Let me go back in time to my musings about the theatre world's responses to Black History Month --- in particular, a sort of trialogue of letters exchanged back in January of this year, involving first myself, then Michelle Dowd, and finally Maurice Parent.


This is what we had to say to one another:

From: "Larry Stark"
Date: Jan 18, 2017 4:34 AM
To: "michelle dowd"

Dear Michelle...

Every time I've found your name in the program of a play I'm about to see, I've know that I was about to see something that would Make Me Think.

I have no idea how you do it!

Theatre Should make people think, simply because it CAN --- in ways other "media" can't.

Let me back up a minute, and say yesterday two other IRNE reviewers gave me a ride to Providence to see the Trinity production of THE MOUNTAINTOP.

Now, I had seen a production (frankly, a bit better production) of it at the Central Square Theatre; And I thought I was about to see another play, that fictionalized a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X ["The Meeting"] --- a play I have hopes for and hope I get to see some time.

You see, about this time of year, I get to see a couple shows I've come to call "The Obligatory BLACK Plays" that people trot out for Black History Month. They usually Are about Black History, but they're usually more DocuDramas than really gutsy plays --- interesting, but no cigar.

I think I began thinking about this when, a few years back, I saw Johnny Lee Davenport playing a slave in Civil War times staying on to help his Jewish Massa after Sherman had torched his mansion --- and participating in a seder-ceremony. Interesting, yes; historically accurate, maybe; Good theatre? Oh, come on!!! It was a waste of a great actor's talent.

Flip back to another experience:

I have a couple standard conversation-getting questions I toss actors; one I tossed to [ **** ] over a couple of beers one night "Is there a part you've always Wanted to play but haven't yet?” (I will ask YOU that question some day, so think about it.)

He said "Yes, but no one will let me play it. I'll never be cast as John Proctor in THE CRUCIBLE, because I'm the wrong color for the part."

Flip back to last year, when I saw a fascinating new play over in Hibernian Hall called THE DRAFT, that came from a fine book of interviews with people who either Were Drafted for the Vietnam War, or avoided the draft. What I noticed was that, since almost half the cast were Black and young, I got to see some damn good young Black actors, most of whom I had never seen before.

Flip to SCOTTSBORO BOYS (which I went to see TWICE) which is filled with Black Conservatory students showing brilliantly what they learned in school today.
When they graduate, will they ever get to play great, moving Black people, or will they --- once a year --- get to wrestle with some erzatz drama like NO DOGS, NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS (a play New Rep did back in that church in Newton)??

You can see where I'm headed, can't you?

I don't like "race-blind casting" (I can't tell you how much I Hated Huntington's A DOLL'S HOUSE!)

BUT............

What if there were an All Black Company here in Boston that would do "WHITE Plays"?

EXAMPLE:

What if you could play Mary Tyrone with Johnny Lee Davenport in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (with an Irish maid, of course)? What if the two of you were set loose on WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? What if the entire cast of Neil Simon's JAKE'S WOMEN were Black?

As audience, I'd like to know how it could Change those characters if they changed the color of their skins, if the cast brought THEIR experiences, their Lives into the mix. And wouldn't it be exhilarating for actors at last to walk around wearing some of the most interesting characters in plays?

Hell, let's try PRIVATE LIVES that way some day!

Am I just dreaming?

Everyone I've talked to thinks it's a great idea, But .....

But I keep thinking,

Why NOT???

I couldn't say any of this to you, but I know you have a mind (Not All Actors Do), and life-experiences I've never had. You know much more, from experience, about theatre here in Boston than I ever will.

Am I dreaming? Is there anyone I could talk to about this?

What Do YOU Think???

And, let me remind you, I LOVE Your Work, and always have.

Break a leg, Lady!

Love,
===Anon.
( aka That Fat O L D Man with The Cane )


And this was her response:

From: Michelle Dowd
Sent: Wednesday, January 18, 2017 10:19 AM
To: larrystark@theatermirror.com
Subject: RE: RE: Email

Hey Larry,

Thank you for the kind words.

You mention “The Meeting” --- my how I LOVE that play and would kill to direct it. You are right when you say that somehow the Black History Month, while appreciated, sometimes feels as the “community” is giving you permission to act BUT only one month out of the year. When you think of doing The Meeting you immediately think, that is the only month when it could be done, and somehow the thought of it being produced say in September would be certain death for some reason.

As an artist, I have long thought about the landmark roles that I would never do , bodies of work/art from some of the best writers that I would never be able to do because as [ … ] said “I would never be cast” because these are stories written by white artists about white families. I remember when I was with the Harrison Project back in the day, and we were told to pick a monologue and perform it. No one knew what was chosen until it was performed. I chose Blanche’s "He was a boy, just a boy..." speech. When I started, I could hear one of my colleagues gasp, literally gasp. To his credit, the director paused after I had completed it and said that it was good, very good but it was not likely a role I would ever be cast in so not necessarily a good choice for auditions. And he was right. Each year, black artists peruse the productions announced and look for opportunities --- looking for those few written for black characters or by some magic forward thinking directors and producers willing to say “let’s make it about talent first, define the family second --- because now, in this day and age, we can”. Let me say, there are directors and producers out there that do say that; I have worked with them and it has been a wonderful, rewarding and awarding experience. But to your point, what hasn’t been done is allowing an audience to see the famous plays turned into plays about people, rather than specifically white people. Do I believe there is a difference, yes of course there is, how can there not be, given our national shared history that plays itself out daily. But what is theater but a bit of voyeurism to satisfy the curiosity we all have for all things not us.

Long winded response to say I think it is a good idea also. How would/could it get done? Producing is a hard job having done it years ago with a Pinter play I produced because I knew I would never be cast in one. It is also an expensive one. One possibility is to partner with an existing company, say with the agreement to do one play a year within their season until the company was earning enough had enough audience interest to do it themselves. If they knew they could get an artist like Davenport, Maurice and others in their show lineup (or in one show) when otherwise they may not have them, it might make commercial sense to them. For something like this, you would also need Directors with depth given the material is challenging. Regarding dollars, with arts funds dwindling, I don’t know what grants or funding would be available and particularly given the mission. While a lot of people may say they are whole heartily for it, in their hearts of hearts they may not endorse it either monetarily or as an audience members.

It bears keeping in mind, I think. I have been out of the producing side for a gazillion years and even when I did, I had a business partner who had the skills to do the majority of it. I signed checks and lost money J. I could ask David Miller (Zeitgeist) what he thinks of the idea. What stumbling blocks he sees. Not for nothing, he already is halfway there if my being cast in Tennessee Williams is any evidence.

Michelle

From: "Larry Stark" Date: Jan 22, 2017 at 11:35 PM To: Maurice Emmanuel Parent

I want your reactions, comments, feedback on my idea of BLACK ACTORS/WHITE PLAYS. I ran it by Michelle Dowd a while ago, and her response was encouraging enough that I want to include My e-mail letter and Hers (slightly edited) in The Theater Mirror. If you have the time, I’d like to include one from You as well. {I want the same from Diego Arciniegas, but I haven’t located his damn e-mail address yet}

Here’s what I have so far [NOTE: Raw-Data not final revision]

From: Maurice Parent
Sent: Friday, February 03, 2017 12:17 AM
To: Larry Stark
Subject: Re: I want your help in breathing Life into my new hobbyhorse.......

Hello there!!

I can't believe it but somehow I missed this email! Maybe it's because I have 5 different email accounts all connected to the various jobs I have, so I sincerely apologize for the delay in my response!!

I read the wonderful insights you and Michelle wrote (I am truly flattered that she mentioned me on the same sentence as Johnnie Lee!). I will work on a more in-depth response but in short

I'M STARTING A COMPANY THAT WILL DO JUST THIS!!

I'm working with Dawn Simmons, Liana Asim, Keith Mascoll and others to start a new theatre company focused on telling stories from the Black and Brown perspective. We are hosted and sponsored by Central Square Theatre and our first project will be a free reading series. Though we won't exclusively produce traditional "White" plays with black casts (we also want to do black plays written for black casts) looking at classics through a black / brown lens is a major part of our mission.

We only have a facebook page so far. Here it is: https://www.facebook.com/thefrontporchartscollective/

As I mentioned I'm swamped with learning lines but I will write more to you soon and look forward to sitting down with you for a beer sometime soon!

All the best
Maurice

My e-mail address is:[ larrystark@theatermirror.com ]
My snailmail address:[ 125 Amory Street #501, Roxbury 02119 MA ]

Love,
===Anon.
(aka That Fat OLD Man with The Cane)

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