Thursday, April 22, 2010

Inge 2010 - Day 2

I spent the morning listening to two good friends -- Elizabeth Wilson and Barbara Dana -- read a portion of a work-in-progress by Barbara. It's a play about two aging actors working to come up with a play that they can do for a benefit and touches on the friendships -- past and present -- that they share.

Elizabeth Wilson and Barbara Dana

After lunch I sat in on a lively panel discussion with agent Peter Franklin, Gigi Bolt, and Mary Hanes on the current state of theatre and promotion of new playwrights in America. The consensus was that there are innovative ways to get new playwrights out to the theatres that are looking for new works, and there should be a means of providing support for theatre programs that nurture new writers. After all, where would theatre be without playwrights?

Peter Franklin, Gigi Bolt, Mary Hanes

Later there was a session with Dan Sullivan, the former theatre critic of the Los Angeles Times, and his view of the state of dramatic criticism and how the critics treated William Inge.

Tonight is the concert reading of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. I'll have some thoughts on it later.

Update: My thoughts on The Mountaintop.

The premise of the play is that it is the night of April 3, 1968 in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. retires to his room after giving a speech to a Memphis church congregation during the sanitation workers strike. When a mysterious young hotel maid comes to visit him during the night, King is forced to confront his mortality and the future of his people.

When you have a story that depicts an event in history where you know the outcome, it takes a bit of ingenuity to make it interesting to the audience, and when you're writing about a man whose history and life has been so well documented, it takes some imagination to put an additional dimension on the character. In this case, Ms. Hall has accomplished both with a degree of success. No small credit goes to Anika Noni Rose who played Camae, the hotel maid, who gave the role a depth that went beyond the stereotype of the hip black woman of the 1960's. (There is a twist to her character that made it more interesting; think Touched By An Angel.) Gilbert Glenn Brown played Dr. King, and he had the added burden of taking him to a level that goes beyond the historical footage that we remember of him from forty years ago. The problem with playing him is that for the most part the only record we have of Dr. King is his famous speeches, including the one he gave in Memphis the night before he was shot, and the one containing the line that gives the play its title.

The performance was done in a concert version, which means the actors were reading from scripts on music stands, so there was no blocking or interaction. It didn't seem to hinder their performances, though, and at the end of the play, the audience gave them a standing ovation.

The other problem with plays that deal with an historical event is that we have our own memories to compare it to. The death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. struck a number of white people as not only a tragedy for the country, but there was inherently a sense of white liberal guilt; as if there was something we could have done to prevent it or done more to advance civil rights so that Dr. King would not have had to take his campaign to the streets and to the South. Perhaps there was an echo in that tonight in the applause at the William Inge Theatre, but I also think that the reaction and the accolades that the playwright and the actors received was in genuine appreciation of their work. But I also think that political theatre requires a measure of both timelessness and inclusiveness: the message cannot be merely to reflect the moment, because the shelf-life of those plays can be measured with an egg timer. And in order to go beyond preaching to the choir, it has to do more than emphasize a point of view that can only be appreciated by one segment of the society. Playwrights do not get to choose their audiences, and it takes a deft hand to make a play on such a topic reach across the aisle... including the ones in a theatre.



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