This past week I had the opportunity to watch two amazing plays by two amazing playwrights: Leslie Lee and P.J. Gibson. The first play I saw was by Leslie Lee on Saturday, May 16th was Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things written by Leslie Lee and performed at the Castillo Theater on 42nd street between ninth and tenth avenues. I was truly able to empathize with the main character of this play, Cairo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who works at an insurance agency in Chicago. I talked with Mr. Lee who said that this main character is loosely based on the experiences of Richard Wright, soon after he moved to Chicago from Mississippi. What strikes me about this play, as a writer myself are the historic nuances of the time period that Lee expressed in this play. Two of which specifically struck me were the numbers lines that Cairo’s co workers talked about and the different numbers books that they played from. I have to make sure that if I am writing in a historic period, that I capture everything, including the popular pastimes of people those days. I read a review of this play in Backstage by Mark Peikert and in some ways, Peikert definitely explicates this play in terms of its contributions to humanity, according to Addison Gayle’s stated role of the critic. Peikert writes that this play deals more with issues of class and misogyny than with race. I wholly saw that in this play. In fact the way that Cairo deals with these issues of misogyny and race is what made his character absolutely so appealing, so sympathetic to me. Lee begins the play showing a passionate intimacy with Cairo and Ruby (Dewanda Wise) his girlfriend, and Ruby shows her very sensual side. However their very first interaction is fraught with mistrust when Cairo discovers that Ruby is wearing a dress another man gave her. He immediately challenges the “good time girl” or tramp stereotype that Ruby is falling into. As a playwright, Lee shows the difference between the individual and the stereotype. We get brief glimpses of Ruby’s resistance against this stereotype, when she asks Cairo to read to her, but we also get that fact that Cairo’s working obligations disallow him from spending time that is sufficient to separate Ruby from this tramp stereotype. Ruby understands this and ultimately shatters this tramp stereotype by deciding to move away from Chicago altogether. Lee is raising important questions about the employment possibilities of black women in the urban areas towards the latter end of the 1930s. Where Peikert writes that Ruby is simply a good time girl, a closer examination of Ruby will reveal that she wanted to be more than this stereotype, hence her fateful decision to move away from Chicago, when she discovers that she is pregnant, but unsure about who the her baby’s father is. The play’s action changes between two scenes: those between Cairo and Ruby and those at Cairo’s workplace. It is here that Lee challenges misogyny through the character of Cairo in the criticism of his co-workers’ behavior. His co-workers R.J. (Nathan Purdee), Travis (Marcus Naylor), and Boyd (Ralph McCain) are life insurance agents who arbitrarily charge their female clients hefty premiums depending on their clients’ willingness to sleep with them. Cairo rightly chastises co-workers for capitalizing on their female clients’ weaknesses. It is here I believe that Lee makes his most profound his contribution to humanity, through Cairo’s verbalizing of the ethical problems behind taking sexual advantages of their clients. But also, Lee makes an even stronger statement through the character of Mae Ann (Crystal Anne Dickinson), a client of Travis’s who pulls a gun on Travis after she realizes his game. Lee writes a searing monologue of Mae Ann who says she could not even look her children or husband in the eye after sleeping with Travis. She threatens to shoot Travis and serves as a cautionary tale to men about the dangers of taking unnecessary advantage of clients that one works with. This scene is a very exciting, suspenseful scene that precipitates Cairo’s decision to leave. Lee also shows the imbecility of colorism within the African American community through the exchanges between R.J. who wants to swap clients with Boyd in order to get more lighter-skinned clients since, according to R.J., lighter skinned ladies are “nicer.” Lee said that he was encouraged to end the play with Cairo leaving however he changed it to allow Cairo’s ethic to influence R.J. when R.J. describes his deceased father-figure from the South who slapped him across the face for not respecting a woman. As Cairo is preparing to leave their office for good, R.J. is on a phone call trying to arrange another rendezvous with a client when all of a sudden he feels a slap across his face; R.J. takes this as yet another warning against mistreatment of women, and Lee makes yet another attack on misogyny, he also brings the redeeming qualities of the American South to our attention. The South is a place where Ruby goes to flee the dangerous stereotypes leading her into prostitution and drug abuse; it is also a place where R.J. thinks about to stave himself from the vices of urban life.
During intermission, I had the opportunity to talk to Lee about the play; I shared how stuck Ruby seemed to be in the tramp (or jezebel) stereotype and Lee agreed. In this play, I was struck by the romance between Cairo and Ruby; how much he wanted to love her, and how unable and incapable Ruby was of loving Cairo. I definitely empathized with his feeling of isolation due to his voracious reading, which immediately set him apart from not only Ruby but from his co-workers, who tried to use alcohol to challenge his ethical claims. Essentially R.J. was trying to suggest that the alcohol was a cure for Cairo’s problems, however Cairo knew this was not the case and resisted. Cairo’s understanding of his manhood in this play is concerned with the need to be a father. He hated his father’s abandonment and tries not to repeat such abandonment when he discovers that Ruby is pregnant: he tells Ruby that he wants to raise her child. However when even Ruby does not know who the father of her baby is, Cairo is still insistent on being a father, a more attentive and better father than Cairo’s father was to him. Here Lee also extends the alienation of the educated black man in the late 1930s, an issue that was written about in Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. He is not only alienated by his woman but by his co-workers. We get that in Cairo. We get him resisting the stereotype of the whore and of the womanizer, the same way the narrator in Invisible Man resisted the stereotype of the black nationalist demagogue, corporate pawn of the HBCU, and the black token-trophy of the white Left. Lee is challenging these stereotypes in this play. Through R.J., Cairo presents the importance of remembering one’s heritage in treating a woman correctly, and not following the stereotypes that urban life can encourage. We get this in Cairo.
The second play I saw last week that absolutely changed my life was presented at a staged reading at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, last Wednesday, May 21, 2009. The play is tentatively titled The Diana Sands Project and is written by P.J. Gibson. I am grateful for the efforts of Diana Sands’ niece, Kathryn Leary in organizing this staged reading. It was searing. I truly hope this can be produced. Like my first play, this play is a biographical play about the pioneering Broadway actress Diana Sands, who lived a short yet full life. She stands out in my mind as the actress to originate the role of Beneatha in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Her career blossomed after this role, and I think P.J. Gibson shows all the important marks and the interesting back stories in this play. I liked hearing the back story of how Diana braced herself for the indomitable slap that Claudia McNeil, who played her mother in A Raisin in the Sun gave her each and every night. McNeil seemed to take a bit too much pleasure in doing that. What brought Diana to life for me was the woman reading the role of Diana herself: Kim Brockington. I remember seeing Kim Brockington in her portrayal of Zora Neale Hurston in Kristy Andersen’s 2008 film Jump At The Sun. She portrays one of the back stories of Diana Sands’ story in such a powerful way, particularly the back story of the pain Diana felt when her then husband Lucien Happersburger leaves her for writer James Baldwin. Gibson writes a very painful part for Diana in going through this. In my mind, this part is one of the main reasons that this play should be produced because that kind of pain of adultery, particularly men leaving wives for other men is so relevant today. It was a pain suggested in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it is a pain made more relevant after the popularity of J.L. King’s book. And it is a pain that Gibson writes so clearly in this play. Brockington is actually crying “Jimmy!” She is in sheer unbelief that her husband would leave her for another man, yet Gibson has her state very clearly that it is not because Lucien left her for another man why she’s so angry, but the fact that she found out from other people talking about it, rather than Lucien telling her directly. We get this so clearly from Gibson’s play. I like how Ms. Gibson frames this play. It begins with Sands in a dressing room, seeming to have a casual conversation with an audience about her life. According to the stage directions I heard at this reading, there is a screen on which important images are shown. Some of these images are the different people and plays and productions that Sands was involved in. I am sure it will be fun for the production to collect and project all those productions. There were many and they were influential. The most influential production Diana Sands was involved in I think was the Broadway production of The Owl and the Pussycat where Sands starred with Alan Alda. I am appreciative for Gibson including in this play the New York Times review of The Owl and the Pussycat where Alda tried to temper the then old-fashioned, racist attitudes that were uncomfortable seeing a stable black woman-white male couple on stage. In this script, Gibson quotes Alda saying that kissing her was no big deal, she’s just a human. To me, this revealed a high level of discomfort on Alan Alda’s part. Sitting behind me at this reading was the actual friend of Diana Sands, Dee! I was so humbled to meet her and hear more about Sands’s life from her at the reception following this meeting. Sitting in front of me at this reading was none other than the actress who originated the role of Ruth Younger in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun: Ruby Dee. In her important memoir she co-wrote with Ossie Davis, edited by Sydne Mahone called With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together, she writes of Sands: “there are some spirits that stride boldly over the horizon and claim life with gusto. Diana Sands was one of these people. She came sure and laughing, taking hold of what she came for with both hands. She played Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, giving us the essence of Lorraine Hansberry, the author, in her portrayal.” Dee says also in this memoir that when she was in Hansberry’s presence, she felt she was in the presence of “a superior intellect.” I am so excited to see this play read, and see it have the opportunity to be produced. I was invited to this reading by my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones, an actress who read the role of Dee, Diana Sands’ best friend who was sitting behind me at the reading. Bianca is sitting to the left of Kim in this reading. In the following video clip #1, you see a pink hat, which is the hat of one Ms. Ruby Dee.
In the second video clip, you see the reception that Ms. Leary held in the Reading Room of the Schomburg Center with Diana Sands’ best friend, Dee, talking about her friend Diana. In the third video clip, you see Ms. Leary leading Ms. Dee to read about Diana Sands from her memoir My One Good Nerve:
In the third video clip, is accomplished stage actress Mary Alice discussing Diana, followed by Diana’s best friend in London:
In the fourth video clip is accomplished stage actress and writer Micki Grant discussing Diana:
In the fifth video is what Ms. Leary described as the “village” of Diana Sands:
In the sixth video clip is Kim Brockington discussing how she received this role of Diana:
What I thought was remarkable in this sixth video clip of Brockington is the fact that every role she truly wanted to play, she played. I am fascinated at how some things, roles, seemed to be destined for certain people. Brockington said in this clip that the first role she got when she was at Morgan State was the lead in The Owl and the Pussycat which was also a breakout role for Diana Sands. Brockington in my mind is the closest facial resemblance to Diana Sands among any accomplished actor out there. I was so pleased to see this production come to fruition. In this seventh video clip is director of this reading, Regge Life.
In this eighth video clip is the first part of the playwright of the Diana Sands project, P.J. Gibson, Professor of Creative Writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. What is fascinating about what Ms. Gibson says is the fact that she had a photo of Diana Sands with her in college, brought it to graduate school, then to Brown University, then to New York. I am fascinated with how people seem to be predestined to do powerful things. The photo of Diana Sands that she kept was a symbol or a testament to the long relationship that Gibson had with Diana Sands. However no relationship seemed more important to Gibson than that between Diana Sands and her friend Dee, whose interviews with Gibson she said were instrumental to writing this play, and interviews with her niece Kathryn Leary.
In this ninth video clip, P.J. Gibson talks about how the piece she wrote on Diana Sands was completed and how different people met each other. Gibson said: “things come when they come.” I truly appreciated hearing this, because, for me, for me, it shows the power of God and how he will line people up with the right resources in the right places for things to happen. In this clip Gibson talks about internalizing and getting as close to the actual Diana Sands as possible, which meant learning that she had a taste for pineapple from Dee (and Brandy Alexander, Diana’s favorite drink which was served at this reception) and also learning a lot from Kathryn Leary.
In this tenth video clip, P.J. Gibson says about Diana: “this is a woman who has been walking with me for a long time.” This speaks to the spiritual perceptiveness of writers, and how spirits such as Diana’s might not have been literally walking with Gibson, Diana’s aura, presence, and essence remained and remains with Gibson. Brockington also spoke to this when she explicitly said she asked Diana to come and she did. I think that was evident in the reading in Brockington’s very vivid portrayal and in Ruby Dee’s reading where all Ruby Dee described about Diana was being portrayed by Ruby Dee herself. I am also fascinated with the connections between Diana and her best friend Dee. I thought the fact that they came from different worlds yet had a strong abiding love was powerful. My friend Bianca played this extraordinarily well. I remember Bianca and Kim giving each other a very very warm hug at the end of the reading. I appreciated hearing Gibson’s writing process. She says she writes everything up in her head. This is how novelist Edward P. Jones writes, according to my interview with him that aired on WBAI two years ago. Gibson is asked how long it took her to write this by my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones. In the reading, the men in Diana’s life were masked.
Later in this eleventh video clip I asked Gibson where she got the idea about the masks from. After I asked this, an actor in this reading thanked P.J. Gibson
Finally in the twelfth video clip, my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones shares how she learned about Diana Sands and playing Dee. If it were not for her, I would not have attended this important reading. Thank you, Bianca.
The last play I saw this past week was a searing play by Naomi Wallace entitled Things of Dry Hours. I was most humbled by this play. I thought more than anything it is a role-reversal of the white supremacist world within the home of one Sunday School Communist teacher, Tice Hogan. Tice is played by the legendary Delroy Lindo who sticks out in my mind as the indomitable West Indian Archie in Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm X. His daughter Cali Hogan, played by Roslyn Ruff, is a laundress and cobbler who works to support herself and her father. When Corbin, played by Garret Dillahunt, seeks refuge in Tice’s home in order to avoid the Klan for being a Communist sympathizer (I think), the tables are turned in terms of his power relative to the outside world. Corbin demands that Tice gives him the names of Communist members. Tice demands that Corbin learn how to read the Bible and the Communist manifesto by Marx. Cali resists the demands of both, veering from Tice’s communist teachings and from Corbin’s sexual advances. I think Wallace turns the tables in quite a convincing way. More than Lee and Gibson in their plays, Wallace takes more poetic licenses, with Tice in particular who makes comparisons of mankind to appleseeds. I had the opportunity to ask Wallace why the apple of all metaphors for Tice and she replied that it is something he likely sees a lot. I appreciate the poetic lines that Tice has, particularly being a student of the Bible which uses very vivid metaphors to teach its lessons. Perhaps the most powerful character in this play is Cali. I like the way Wallace writes her coping mechanisms for dealing with male sexual abuse. When Tice is away, Cali forces Corbin to play a game where he puts black cream on his face while Cali puts white cream on her face in order to mimic her sexually abusive white masters. After Corbin plays with her, Cali develops an attraction to Corbin, perhaps because this is the only man whose circumstances even as a white man in 1930s Alabama has forced him to actually not see her as an object of sexual conquest (not until the second act, that is). This play is a must see. –RF.