Gunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, responding to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. I first wrote the play in response to the Charleston church shootings and the debate surrounding the insensitive usage of the Confederate flag. The play, combining spoken word and live music, sheds new light on the American slave narrative while paying homage to the real Betty, Alvis, and George, three historically documented slaves that died in North Carolina before the emancipation proclamation was signed.
After the selected scene performances, such playwrights included in the anthology as Lynn Nottage, Marissa Chibas, Nikkole Salter, Vickie Ramirez and I signed books in The Public Theater’s lobby. The energy in the room was magnetic and powerful with so many women taking up that kind of space.
None of this would have been possible without the genius of Roberta Uno (Director of Arts in a Changing America). Roberta edited the 1st and 2nd editions of the anthology, the 1st edition being published a little over 20 years ago with such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith and Elizabeth Wong. I even remember discovering the 1st edition in my undergraduate library while perusing the shelves, hoping to find work that represented me. As a young undergraduate actress at the California Institute of the Arts, I was thankful to have instructors such as Nataki Garrett and Marissa Chibas who aided in helping me find material I could relate to.
However, I know this is not the case for every young person of color (POC) actor and actress who is currently seeking a degree in acting. So often, I’ve heard my fellow black actors at other institutions talk about not knowing any contemporary black material they can do scene work from. They say that their instructor is usually giving them material from August Wilson’s body of work. Although August Wilson’s work is beautiful and presents the African-American experience in such a deep and profound way, it appears we have forgotten there are other great black writers out there. And, of these overlooked black playwrights, it is the women who are most forgotten.
At the book launch, Roberta Uno spoke about how she acquired a lot of the material for this current anthology. She said she spoke to many theaters and artistic directors asking for their rejection piles. It was clear to her that in this rejection pile was where most of the work submitted by women playwrights resided.
On the bright side, it seems that the theater world is embracing more female playwrights and stories. While I was in NYC that week, I witnessed Soho Rep’s production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is. Not only did I have a mind-blowing experience, but I was in awe and so proud of this all-black cast telling such an epic tale by a young black female playwright.
“Is God Is” at Soho Rep.
Is God Is is a fascinating piece of theater because it mixes so many genres: Afro-Punk, Spaghetti Westerns, and experimental theatre all into one cohesive piece. I read the play on my flight to NYC and Harris’s use and experimentation with language completely breaks new ground. Even the way that the actors embodied this text was refreshing and eye-opening. It really inspired me as a young playwright to see other black female writers getting recognition for pushing the boundaries of what a play “can” or “should” be. Harris was actually the first winner of The Relentless Award, which was established to honor actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The American Playwriting Foundation’s website says, “The Relentless Award is the largest annual cash prize in the American Theater awarded to a playwright in recognition of a new play.”
Also, in the past year, women of color playwrights have been killing the game in other avenues. Dominique Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud broke Berkeley Rep’s house record in 2017 and currently, CTG and LATC have produced all three plays in Quiara Alegeria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. It is quite evident that times are changing. And in the words of Maxine Waters, it appears women of color playwrights are indeed, #ReclaimingOurTime!
Dionna Michelle Daniel is a playwright and the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
The study of theater has always been a slightly odd fit with higher education. Theater’s departmental needs are so different from the norm: Where other programs require smart classrooms, desks, and Wi-Fi, we seek vast, empty spaces with sprung wood floors and natural light. The inner life of a chemistry major should not affect the outcome of an assignment; for theater majors, the inner life is the assignment.
The craft of acting involves human behavior. Constantin Stanislavsky, the father of American acting style, was a Russian actor who became frustrated with the inconsistencies of his own work. He sought to define a “system” for creating believable behavior on stage, which involved an in-depth study of a character’s motivations and circumstances.
Some of the precepts of Stanislavsky’s technique for embodying life on stage include fierce concentration and the ability to focus one’s attention at will, significant mind/body reciprocity, a developed and practiced imagination, and the exploration and study of the outside world (other people, other art forms, literature, and one’s own life experiences). Acquiring those skills could be an antidote for college students who are said to be lacking empathy, isolated and narcissistic, distracted and jaded.
Theater (slow, communal, physical) may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world. Social psychologists, neurologists, and doctors tell us that cellphone use (in the way our students do it, more than eight hours a day) is altering modes of attention, reducing eye contact, hurting necks and hands, and changing our brains and sleep cycles. Apparently nothing feels as good as the dopamine rush that floods our brains every time the phone “pings.” We are all of us, to a degree, nomophobic (the term coined to describe the anxiety that results from being without one’s phone).
A colleague tells a story about assigning a scene from a 1970s play in which one character waits on a park bench for some time. The actor was unable to conceive of any kind of “waiting” that did not involve having a cellphone to mitigate the boredom. She simply did not know what to do.
Our students (and this will very likely increase in the next couple of years, as the first cohort of 21st-century children goes to college) are unfamiliar with the experience of being alone with their thoughts or of following their thoughts, unimpeded, wherever they might travel. Solving a STEM equation is important, but discoveries in the sciences will occur only when people know how to be alone with their thoughts. Who is teaching that?
In acting classes, students grapple with the effects of technology on their brains, bodies, and social selves. Cellphones must be turned off and put away. The goal is to disconnect with technology and to connect with one another and themselves. Students struggle to maintain eye contact; they work to develop a psycho/physical connection for what they think, feel and do; they concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. They read plays; they memorize text; they learn to follow their impulses to create movement, gesture, intimacy, community. If this scene were unfolding in a movie in which computers were threatening to destroy humanity, you’d be cheering for the theater majors to save us.
A colleague recently despaired because her students no longer understood the action “to flirt.” Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and “flirting” did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact, light touch, smiling, playfulness) from the actors. When asked to flirt, they went straight to simulated sex. There was no in-between. Bottom line: Even though technology has become what we do all day, it isn’t human behavior.
From 2011 to 2014, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation worked with theater artists in Chicago through an online survey and a battery of aptitude tests to determine whether there are innate skills shared among theater workers. The aptitude called “foresight,” which is the talent to envision many possible outcomes or possibilities, was present in all theater workers (playwrights, directors, designers, actors). When actors try out various line readings or interpretations of a scene, when they improvise or create backstory, they are using foresight.
But foresight would be impossible without empathy. The actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances, not the actor’s. That requires a kind of stepping into another person’s shoes that social scientists say is dwindling among college-age students.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.”
When he played the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Philip Seymour Hoffman explained that his preparation each night included sitting for at least a half-hour at the cramped kitchen table onstage, experiencing his shabby surroundings, sipping coffee, and allowing his imagination to wander as Willy’s would have. Our student on the park bench would have had trouble with that.
Algorithms recommend music based on what we’re already listening to, books similar to others we’ve read, and “friends” from among people we already know. As a result, we are less frequently confronted by the other, the unknown, the different. Stanislavsky’s technique requires a thorough study of a character’s situation — whether geographic location or state of physical health — and asks that actors explore the effects of those circumstances on their own selves. In a semester, a college actor will play multiple characters, stretching to inhabit another psyche, another intellect, another body. It’s a veritable empathy boot camp.
Businesses have long recognized that elements of actor training can be used to develop creativity, improve communication, and resolve conflicts. Many corporate consultants have bachelor’s degrees in acting and make a good living teaching improvisation, role play, and collaborative problem-solving to M.B.A.s. Yet universities with theater departments have failed to recognize that they have this resource in their own backyards.
Whatever your feelings about the legitimacy of theater as a college major, or its eventual earnings potential, there are important struggles and discoveries happening in the acting classroom. As technology and machines consume more and more of life, perhaps theater can help us remember what it means to act like a human.
Tracey Moore is an associate professor of theater in the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. This post appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“I have a long history of flamenco,” Pamela Dunlap says — her tongue firmly in her cheek. And thereby hangs the tale.
“Actually, I’m not a dancer,” she continues. “I’m dragged kicking and screaming into flamenco class” as the lead in Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song, now having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre.
Playing Rochelle — a middle-aged, out-of-shape Jewish woman who’s undergoing a crisis of faith — Dunlap is persuaded to join a flamenco class for other middle-aged, out-of-shape women. The production unites two of the Fountain’s specialties — plays and the subject of flamenco (the Fountain is presenting Forever Flamenco at the Ford on June 15).
“It’s an all-female cast,” Dunlap says, “and the camaraderie is great. It’s a wonderful journey.” Shirley Jo Finney is directing.
When I suggest that it sounds a bit like Steel Magnolias, a perennial favorite, she says, “Oh no, it’s not anything like Steel Magnolias! In this play nobody has diabetes, nobody’s getting their hair done, and there are no cranky old women.”
She should know. She was in a Salt Lake City production of Steel Magnolias, playing the role of the former mayor’s widow, who describes the new mayor’s wife as looking, while dancing, “like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.”
Dunlap confesses that early in her career she taught Latin dances — the cha-cha, the merengue, the samba — at a Xavier Cugat Dance Studio in New York. “Cugat was the Arthur Murray of Latin dancing,” she says. “He had dance studios all over.”
Dunlap is herself a New York woman from Flushing and Jackson Heights. Currently she considers herself bicoastal, with a home in Manhattan and another in Van Nuys. In Southern California, shehas performed at the Ahmanson, South Coast Rep, and LA Theatre Works, but this is her first appearance at the Fountain.
In New York she has been seen on Broadway in Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,Redwood Curtain, and Yerma, and in several Off-Broadway roles. Recently, she appeared at Theater Raleigh in North Carolina as Mattie Fae, the nagging sister of Violet and mother of Little Charles in August Osage County.
On TV she has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, NCIS, Law and Order SVU andCommander in Chief, but her most visible role currently is as Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law and abominable baby-sitter for Betty’s daughter Sally on AMC’s Mad Men.
About her role as “Sally’s fiendish baby sitter,” she calls her “a woman with a great sense of entitlement, exactly the opposite of the woman I’m playing in Heart Song — a woman who is struggling to find her sense of entitlement.”
In Heart Song, Rochelle is “a woman who never married, whose mother recently died, and who has very little support. She’s in a painful place of transition, dealing with mortality and trying to find her own identity,” Dunlap explains.
Flamenco teacher Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap).
Questioned about her identification with the characters she plays, she says, “acting allows us to play so many different characters, but we can always find something in ourselves that is like the character. The play mirrors the struggles we all go through, and we find a common history that we didn’t suspect we have in common. A common history or something that connects us to that character.”
On the adventure level, though, she has had a few experiences that aren’t reflected in any play she has appeared in. For example, when her son, Trevor Morgan Doyle, an anthropologist doing research in Finland, decided to marry a Finnish woman, she traveled to the wedding, driving a car for 10 hours above the Arctic Circle. “The car was chugging along because the fuel was freezing in the tank,” she says.
She also reports that the bride’s family, “obviously testing my mettle,” invited her to swim with them in weather that was 70 degrees below freezing. They dug a hole through the ice and then kept scraping the ice off the top of the hole as it froze on contact with the air.
Did she do it? You bet she did!
“Actually, they claim it’s a cure for depression,” she says. “You’re shocking your whole system. I’ve never felt so alive in my life!”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, she has ties with Ethiopia. She is an active member of the Salt Lake City-based Children of Ethiopia Education Fund, a non-governmental organization that provides schooling for girls in that country.
Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Pamela Dunlap.
When not rolling naked in ice holes and visiting schools in Ethiopia, however, she has taken a few moments to accept awards. She has received three Drama-Logue awards, has been an honoree of the New York Drama League, and has won an OOBR (Off-Off Broadway Review) award.
As for the future, she has very definite ideas about whom she would like to work with. Before the question is completely posed, she answers enthusiastically, “Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the real deal.”
But for the present, she is delighted to be working with director Finney, choreographer Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez, and a cast consisting of Juanita Jennings, Tamlyn Tomita, Bermudez (through June 14), Denise Blasor (beginning June 15), Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou and Sherrie Lewandowski.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."
Aside from its implicit critique of the notion of valuing a man’s life by the rung he occupies on the ladder of commerce, other elements in the play resonate freshly today. Among the most famous phrases, recurring in the dialogue almost like an incantation, is Willy’s fervid emphasis on the importance of being “well liked,” once again using a quantitative measure to establish a human being’s inherent value. His son Biff, Willy asserts, will inevitably rise in the world, despite the moral failings they both swat away like pesky gnats, because he is “well liked,” not merely “liked,” as is Charley’s studious son Bernard.
Thanks to the explosion in social media, being “well liked” has become practically a profession in itself. Adults as well as teenagers keep assiduous count of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and surely are inwardly if not outwardly measuring their worth by the rise or fall of the number. People are turning themselves into products, both for profit and for pleasure, and the inevitable temptation is to equate the popularity of your brand with your fundamental self-worth.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."
Many of us are willingly becoming versions of Willy Loman, forever on the road — that is, online — selling ourselves and advertising our lifestyles: describing the meal we just consumed at a restaurant (with uploaded photograph of course) or the trip we’re planning to take. A social-media gadfly (or, say, me) might suggest that there are vestiges of Willy’s tormenting self-doubt in the need to advertise every moment of our life so assiduously, as if constant Facebook updates could vanquish the inner voice whispering in Willy’s ear that his life is built on sand.
The play moves us on any number of levels, perhaps most fundamentally as a mid-century American version of that classic dramatic archetype dating back to the Greeks: the family in mortal conflict with itself. The Loman family’s conspiracy to support Willy in his delusions — at least until Biff decides he has to destroy his father’s illusions to save himself — is drawn from true filial and marital love, and it is in observing how little this love can do to save Willy that the play is most devastating. He is too consumed by the belief that his failure to succeed, and to inculcate success in his sons, has somehow disqualified him for full membership in the human race.
Despite Willy’s delusions and moral evasions, Miller always insisted on the nobility in his struggle. “The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind,” he told The Times during an interview on the occasion of the Chinese production. “Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.” His contradictions and his failings are all human and all common, which is why the hallucinatory last day of his life will always retain the power to command not just our pity but our respect too.