Written By: Jamie Hafner
On the sidewalks of Fishtown, Harriet’s Bookshop owner Jeannine Cook can be found bringing the store’s shelves of books and other goods outside on the weekends.
The Coronavirus outbreak has not stopped Cook’s mission; To celebrate female writers, activists, and artists while creating a space for dialogue and discussion.
“Our mission is slightly different now” Cook noted when discussing the adjustments her bookshop made to continue to serve customers, adding that, “We [Harriet’s Bookshop] took some lemons and made lemonade”.
Harriet’s Bookshop continues to serve the community every Thursday through Saturday, creating socially distant spaces for conversation and book-sharing in a Coronavirus-safe manner. The bookshop’s collection of books changes monthly, thanks to Cook’s monthly collaborations with different female artists who curate the shop’s book selection.
“This is the right thing for me, celebrating women,” Cook said, detailing that “For the most part, [I had] never been to a bookstore that celebrated women and black people. There was a void”.
Harriet's Bookshop is located on:
258 E Girard Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19125
Fellow Philadelphia bookstore owner, Lynn Washington, also noticed a void when serving as Design Studio Supervisor at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2001.
“My job put me in the position to be acutely aware of the abysmal numbers of African-American children who were not able to read by third grade,” Washington remembers.
“My daughter learned to read by kindergarten, and I knew that that happened because I and her father talked, read and sang to her since she was a baby”.
Once Washington discovered that she could create her own bookselling business, she knew that she could make a difference in the lives of Philadelphia African-American children.
“My main objective was to get quality books and other educational items, such as puzzles, quiz cards, into the hands and homes of low-income parents, for themselves and their children”.
Now, Washington houses Philadelphia’s largest selection of Afrocentric Children’s Books at her bookshop, Books & Stuff.
Even though the pandemic has temporarily shut Books & Stuff’s doors, interested customers can still purchase books and merchandise online, including by purchasing new SURPRISE! packages.
“My daughter prompted the idea of "surprise" packages. Soon after I had to close, because of COVID-19, I began thinking about closing the shop for good. She encouraged me to refocus my efforts towards my website shop. My daughter suggested selling packages of books/gifts for children to have something to do, as summer was approaching” Washington stated.
Shoppers can select a price point and age range, allowing Books & Stuff to tailor the perfect package for each customer.
Books & Stuff is located on:
23 Maplewood Mall, Philadelphia, PA 19144
Across the city, Hakim’s Bookstore & Gift Shop continues to sell books online and has been able to safely open its doors to the public once more.
Opened in the mid-1950s by prominent black scholar, publisher, and speaker Dakum Hakim, Hakim’s Bookstore was one of the first bookstores in Philadelphia to carry books on African American history and culture as well as Islamic history and culture. Hakim was also one of the first to ship books to prison inmates.
Now operated by Hakim’s daughter, Yvonne Blake, the store continues to have an impact on the community.
“[Hakim’s Bookstore] is an institution. [The community] knew my dad. He did not have just a bookstore, it was a gathering place in the community. He was a force in the community” Blake described, adding that “My father left a great legacy. He was ahead of his time. Now more than ever I wish he was still alive”.
Since Hakim’s passing in 1997, the bookstore continues to thrive as it adapts to internet sales, social media, and even a global pandemic.
“We had 30 Online orders after the murder of George Floyd. Everyone wanted the same books” Blake said, citing “lots of orders from Portland, Oregon, Guam, including International Orders from London and Ireland”.
Readers from around the world can purchase books from Hakim’s online, and lucky Philadelphians can stop by the West Philadelphia location, even as people stay isolated during the Coronavirus outbreak.
Hakim's Bookstore & Gift Shop is located on:
210 S 52nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19139
No matter the obstacle, these Black-Owned Philadelphia bookstores continue to find ways to reach customers in times of uncertainty. Such inspiration comes from people like Dakum Hakim and the namesake of Harriet Bookshop’s, Harriet Tubman.
“Harriet exemplifies what is possible when you think about it. How was it possible for her to do all these things” Cook explained, adding that Tubman’s mission to better the lives of Black people helped her accomplish so much.
“That’s the power of a mission. Harriet has a north star and we have our mission. Harriet is our north star”.
Written by: Jamie Hafner
PAC has taken a deep dive into the influential works of Black authors and playwrights to compile an extensive list of literary resources for our audience, including poems, short stories, and contemporary and classical plays. This week’s blog highlights four of many, providing a short summary of the plays and ways to enjoy them for free!
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window - Lorraine Hansberry (1964)
As the final staged work of the legendary Black female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, this comedy-drama tells the story of a struggling writer and artist in 1960s New York City. themes of race, suicide, and even homosexuality in an age where presenting these topics on stage was taboo. The three-act play follows Sidney, who must face corrupt politics, societal conformity, and the dreams of his actress wife, Iris, as she pursues a career on television and he begins printing an artistic underground newspaper for the Greenwich Village. Hansberry’s play brings to life the vibrant world of the underground New York City press and explores the Bohemian Culture that changed communities and inspired new movements.
Read Hansberry’s play here: https://www.southshoreinternational.org/ourpages/auto/2016/5/18/59134211/Lorraine%20Hansberry%20The%20Sign%20in%20Sidney%20Brusteins%20Window.pdf
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men - Lonne Elder III (1969)
This play-turned-movie from Pulitzer Prize nominee Lonne Elder III focuses on former vaudeville dancer Russell B Parker and his struggling barbershop in Harlem. Russell and his two sons can barely keep their barbershop alive, while Russell’s daughter, Adele, works endlessly to keep the family afloat. Russell’s wife works herself to death to provide for the family, due to Russell’s lack of ambition since his departure from vaudeville. When the Parkers become divided over illegal activity that brings riches to the family, Russell must confront his past and the racist society he lives in to save himself and the Parker family. While the barbershop protects the family from the racism they face in the world, the games that Russell and his family play with society and with the economy. From the temptations of illegal activity to wealth, Elder’s play shines a light on what threatens Black families in 1960s America and the need to break these societal and economic cycles.
Read Elder’s Play here:
Listen to the Audio Version here:
In Splendid Error - William B. Branch (1954)
William B. Branch’s drama, (produced in February by PAC and Theatre in the X for our Venture Reading Series), follows the highs and lows of the friendship of Fredrick Douglass and John Brown in the years prior to the Civil War. As Brown plans what becomes the notorious 1859 Raid on Harpers Ferry, Douglass struggles to support it. Branch guides audiences through Douglass’s internal conflict while accounting for the historic details of the Raid of Harpers Ferry. Such playwriting gives the stories we read in history books a personal narrative, driven by personal gain, ego, humanity, and the need to create a better future.
Read Branch’s Play here:
Rachel - by Angela Grimke (1916)
The oldest play on this list, Angela Grimke’s female-driven play follows Rachel, a recent high-school graduate whose family lives in the North during the early 20th century. Not only does Rachel face systematic and societal racism head-on, but also sacrifices her dream of having children in order to save others from the harsh realities of racism in America. Even though Grimke’s play was first developed and performed over 100 years ago, the themes of the play still highly relevant today.
Read Grimke’s Play here:
By reading more books and plays by Black Authors and Playwrights, readers can not only gain new perspectives on the experiences of others but will become more educated on the Black experience in America and beyond!
An in depth conversation with our Artist-In-Residence, Andrew Criss & the inspiration behind his vivid oceanic creations for our fall fringe production...The Sea Voyage!
PAC’s first show of this season started with a figurative and literal bang! From gunshots to sword fights, love triangles and romantic reunions, Fletcher & Massinger’s The Sea Voyage directed by Dan Hodge was a vibrant and bold work of art and the same has been said about the artwork created by fellow cast mate and PAC’s Artist in Resident for the season, Andrew Criss. Audience members and readers alike may be shocked to find out the actor playing the charismatic, brawny authoritative sailor known as “Tibalt” had another talent up his nautically stripped muscle clad sleeve; he is also the genius behind all the vibrant artwork and character portraits created for PAC’s fringe production; The Sea Voyage.
The Artist in residency program allows collaboration between performance art and other art mediums and provides a space for various artists to find inspiration in a particular PAC production and create their own art in alliance with the show’s themes and aesthetics. As an Artist in Residence, Andrew Criss designs all visual art and graphics for the fall and spring production for PAC’s 2019-20 season.
One of Andrew Criss’s side jobs in his 20s was as an illustrator in graphic design. His first introduction to print media came around while attending school in Austin, where he quickly became enthralled with the play posters he’d seen for a small theatre company. He wanted to create play posters that were as popular “ the music venue posters [and] cool enough that people would want to tear them down and collect them and keep them”. Traditionally an oil painter with more experience in portraits and landscapes, Criss missed out on the “storytelling aspect” that his past work , in creating theatre posters for shows provided and his excitement in going back to print media combined with painting is evidently presented in his work.
“It was kind of a perfect amalgam of my interest in design and performing and visual art...that ability to weave storytelling into the painting as well which was particularly appealing to me”
- Andrew Criss
The 3-d miniature ship, uniquely shaped moon and boldly colored waters in Criss’s image shown above dazzle the eye and seem to invoke the feeling of swaying or constant motion, that make the image feel fresh and alive but also invoke a feeling of nostalgia in it’s viewer. Andrew Criss’s artistic style for The Sea Voyage was inspired by classic illustrations from the golden age of illustration and is a nod to that, Criss looked at two acclaimed storybook illustrators in particular, N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. Howard Pyle is of particular interest to Andrew Criss as Pyle is from Brandywine Valley, Delaware where Criss currently lives. Criss also used “hand applied” materials (oil painting etc) in the beginning construction of his illustrations.
“Howard Pyle is the person who gave us what we think pirates look like. He illustrated Treasure Island and he’s the one who sort of gave us the “hodge-podge” costume, sash on the head, random mis-match clothes. That was really his visual invention and then N.C. Wyeth continued that tradition with some of his illustrations as well”- Andrew Criss
“An attack on A Galleon” - oil canvas by Howard Pyle
Along with creating the image for The Sea Voyage also created portraits for each character based on each actor cast in the role in the show. These eleven portraits were also created in a similar style as the graphic created for the show. Andrew Criss’s idea to incorporate a “meet the cast” component to his vision for the artistic media for The Sea Voyage was extremely unique, and a refreshing take on allowing the cast faces to be a part of the storytelling as well.
“When you do a portrait you really study the person... get to know them and you're also telling the story of their character, so it's a great way to begin character research as well, as well as study the play and think how can I tell the story of this play... the graphics are the first introduction to the play, so that poster that advertisement that postcard, is the very first thing that the audience might see, especially if they don’t know the play, it's one of the first impressions of the play that they have, so there's an important responsibility" - Andrew Criss
You can look forward to more of Andrew Criss’s work that was created for our currently postponed production of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death directed by Damon Bonetti, and check back in to see what inspired his creations for this tumultuous dark drama!
Actor Bob Weick plays Papa Briquet, the weary, long-suffering ringmaster and owner of the circus in He Who Gets Slapped. We extend the invitation to all of our actors, collaborators, and artists to share their thoughts on our PAC blog, and we were so delighted that Bob had a lovely portrait of his own journey to share alongside his portrayal of Papa, and his exploration of the play's themes on today's political climate.
How do we begin again? How can we remake our lives? How do we face the inevitable pain that comes with this brief gift of life? Must we run away from our past? How do we throw off the chains that hold us back? And, should we somehow find the courage to do so, where do we go? What awaits us on this new adventure?
Should you ever find yourself asking these questions, remember, "the circus turns no one away".
The story being told in He Who Gets Slapped, though written in 1916, is one we can still connect to today. Along with a great deal of humor and evocative music, we witness the horrors of class warfare.
"One of the many benefits of wealth....you can get away with anything".
"The rich buy up everything and lock it away."
The dehumanizing view of women as property: "Just put her in a pretty dress."
The fear of loneliness and aging. "You are not young or beautiful. What does it matter what you want."
The ever present threat of jealousy, despair: "There is only one thing for you.... To forget."
All this and more can be experienced in this production.
How we live our lives matters. Asking questions matters. Theatre has a special way of reminding us to look at the ourselves and the world we inherited. A world we will pass on the others.
Join us as we tell a tale of the beauty and courage to be found in life ... and in death.
- Bob Weick
Bob Weick in an undated photo, courtesy of Kaki Burns.
We've worked with a number of tremendously talented photographers over the years -- look no further than David Comdico's stunning images of the men aboard the Tall Ship Gazela in The Sea Plays or his etherial black-and-white portrait of Chris Coucill's Timon of Athens. We've jumped up and down excitedly when collaborating with Kate Raines (yielding images such as our eerie, falling bride of Blood Wedding), and there was simply nothing else to do when viewing Kyle Cassidy's Vanity Fair-style portrait of our actors in Mary Stuart but gasp, and have it framed immediately.
So photographer Ashley LaBonde had some tall shoes to fill when tackling the promotional shots for "He Who Gets Slapped" -- during which we asked her to arrive at our space, capture images of the actors on a tight schedule after being thrown into makeshift costumes, and document the process.
Her work continues to astonish and astound us, and some of our favorite images from that shoot are the behind-the-scenes candids of makeup artist Jessica DalCanton hard at work, or the glimmering moment when actor Bob Weick, killing time before his costume fitting, began practicing a hat trick. The decision to photoshop her images into the poster design was directly inspired by the painterly quality that she brings to the table, yielding our oil-painting poster with our actors' faces, perfectly captured by Ashley. Enjoy this gallery of images, and don't miss HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.
The first time I sat down with Matt Pfeiffer to have a meeting about working together -- I was a young costume designer, new to Philadelphia, and he was a fiercely talented director, fresh from winning the F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging artist and already directing on some of the biggest area stages -- it was, maybe at first, a little awkward. Awkward because we had been introduced several times before, and I was convinced that he would not remember me, and would have no idea who I was. Awkward, it turns out, because he remembered me very well, and was convinced that I was the one who did not remember meeting him. We laughed, bonding over our shared insecurity. Secretly I wondered, as we discussed costumes and characters, about the disconnect between artists who can so brilliantly mine the best things about their characters, and so quickly jump to assume the worst about themselves.
We're beyond thrilled to have Matt join us as the guest director for our Venture Reading of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." In reading his director's notes for the program, I was reminded of that minor moment of insecurity, and the relief of forgiveness and laughter at discovering we both shared the same fear. O'Neill's characters are so frequently trapped in this inability to forgive themselves, allowing their fear to supersede the desire for connection and forgiveness. I'm so glad that we are not O'Neill characters, but I am so very glad that we have O'Neill's words -- and that we have Matt here to steer this particular ship. -- Katherine Fritz, Artistic Associate
** Please enjoy Matt's director's note for Anna Christie. **
The saying goes; “You might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with you”. Eugene O’Neill spent a great deal of his career exploring this notion. Perhaps it was the Irish Catholic in him, but his characters continually struggle to forgive themselves and seem trapped by the sins of their past. We see different versions of this throughout his cannon, but it was a theme he began exploring very early in his work. Anna Christie is a prime example. It was one of O’Neill’s early successes. It won the Pulitizer in 1920. The play sets us on a coal barge where Captain Chis Christoperhson and his daughter Anna have reunited after many years apart. Into this orbit enters a shipwrecked sailor named Mat Burke. The burgeoning romance between Mat and Anna, the claustrophobic confines of a ship, and the mysteries surrounding Anna’s return set the scene.
Having spent much of his youth at sea, one can understand why the water holds such a mystical and proverbiel power for O’Neill. The sea holds a powerful force over the characters and is often referred to as the devil. But in truth, O’Neill understands that it’s easier to blame unseen forces for our woes, than to deal with reality and ultimately ourselves. But that is the journey the characters must take. In order to find happiness in the present, the sins of our past force us to face ourselves and our truth. No devil sea can hold off the reckoning. This reading presents an amazing opportunity to explore the truth of these beautiful and broken people. The PAC has devoted tremendous resources and artistry to bring life to great texts that offer brilliant insight into the human condition. As they did with “The Sea Plays”, we once again set out to sea to face the bleak, uncertain future, that faces us. The water may be redemptive or swallow us whole. -- Matt Pfeiffer
To reserve tickets for Monday Night's reading, click here. Tickets to our Venture Readings are free, as always, and include snacks. We hope you can join us.
Director Kittson O'Neill on the sexual politics of 'The Rover'
According to theater lore, groundbreaking director Amy Saltz has a mantra:
“If you don’t think every play is about sex, you shouldn’t be making theater.”
Is that true? I mean... Streetcar is all about sex. And Macbeth kind of is too. But is Endgame about sex? Is Antigone or All My Sons? Maybe not on the surface, but still this statement rings true to me. Why is that?
Maybe becaue sex isn’t really about sex. I mean, it is, but the actual getting-it-on part is just a tiny piece of what we mean when we talk about “sex." It’s mostly about the forbidden, about desire, about need and danger. Sex is about posessing and surrendering. And love and destiny and honor. And these are all very big ideas indeed.
The Rover is most definitely about sex. From page one, the characters are plotting to have sex with people they like and avoiding having sex with people they don’t. It’s funny. It’s naughty. It’s frothy entertainment: a spectacle of a play with some very clever, strong willed ladies and some very handsome, smart mouthed boys.
Just below the surface, it is also surprisingly subversive. Hellena and Florinda both want to take control of their sexual destinies. And for a 17th Century woman, your sexual destiny could very well be your whole destiny. As the hymen went, so went the whole self.
And the comedy of the play, the wink it gives the audience, is that we all know it will be better and more fun for everyone if the Ladies get their way and outsmart their brothers and fathers. The playwright expects us to be on their side. Well…they are beautiful young noblewomen, so maybe that’s not such a big stretch. Shakespeare did a lot of that too.
But then there is Angelica, the high priced courtesan, making her independent way in the world in the only way a woman could. She decides she wants to change her destiny, buy into the system, get married and settle down. And for a long while, the play takes her side. Double standards and male treachery are pilloried throughout. The triumphant ending, we expect, will bring Angelica her
Except it doesn’t.
She doesn’t get her man. She's told very clearly to get back to work instead. It’s a deliciously dark note in the frothy “everyone is getting married” end of this madcap comedy. Aphra Behn knew very well what it took for a woman to survive on her own in a world where she had no inalienable rights. In her own sly way, she turns her viewers' gaze directly towards that deep injustice.
We sometimes think of feminism and feminist thought as ideas that sprang fully formed from the brow of Mary Wollenstonecraft, but the truth is much murkier. Throughout history and around the globe, exceptional women have seen through the structures of the society around them and become well aware of their place in that society. Aphra Behn used that insight to make us laugh.... but while we were laughing, she spoke right to “the double standard, which limited her female peers’ sexual desires to the realm of convent, brothel, or home.” (Ellen T Goodson)
I’m delighted that PAC is giving me a chance to dive into this complicated play. While it’s true that none of my American contemporaries are worried about being forced into convents by their brothers, I still see a whole lot of angry men fighting over who gets to make decisions about our vaginas.
Maybe The Rover's laughs hit closer to home than we thought.
Tickets to the Venture Reading Series are always free!
The Rover | Monday, November 9th | 7 pm | Broad Street Ministry
Directed by Kittson O'Neill
For a brief time at the PAC, we tossed around catchy, quippy phrases as a way to market ourselves. Mostly as a joke -- but one of those jokes where we're only half-serious! -- we toyed with the idea of making t-shirts with the slogan "Philadelphia Artists' Collective: Dead playwrights, living classics." There was something kitschy and funny to us about pointing out a certain reality: that on some level, the work we are doing -- breathing new life into very old plays -- relies upon the fact that the playwrights are mostly a bunch of old, dead dudes.
Meet Ian August. Playwright, actor, artist, all-around good guy -- and most definitely alive and well. We are thrilled to be working on his newest play, The Moor's Son, as a part of our Venture Reading Series in 2015. A new play that fits into the mission statement of the PAC? Yup.
We sat down with Ian to chat Shakespeare, history, and what it means to be the guy who says, "I think I'd like to write a sequel to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus."
Hi, Ian! First of all, I just want to say that we're thrilled to have you as our first (living!) playwright collaborator with the PAC! Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind "Moor's Son"? What drew you to this particular material?
I'm just as thrilled as you are! I've been a huge fan of PAC for years now--my husband and I have seen nearly every PAC show since The Dutchess of Malfi, and I can't imagine working with another company on The Moor's Son!
The Moor's Son is written as a sequel to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus--arguably the Bard's bloodiest play. I fell in love with Titus after seeing Julie Taymor's brilliant film adaptation, which starred Anthony Hopkins as the titular Roman general and Jessica Lange as the evil queen, Tamora. Even though it was Shakespeare's first play, you can see echoes of MacBeth, of Hamlet, of Othello--characters with true moral ambiguity and questionable motives and complex psyches--but the world of Titus Andronicusis a world that is unapologetically violent. For nearly all of the characters in TA, the solution to every problem is revenge, which perpetuates the violence in all of it's gory glory. But there is a moment where one of the characters breaks that cycle, and that's the moment that got my wheels turning.
It happens towards the end of the play: Lucius, Titus' son, is raising an army to bring down Tamora and the Emperor, when he is approached by Tamora's servant and lover, the moor Aaron. Aaron, who is often described as one of the most evil characters in the canon, has fathered an illegitimate child with Tamora, and fled Rome to hide his newborn son. He offers to reveal to Lucius all of the terrible things he's done to the Andronicus family if Lucius will protect the baby. Lucius agrees, and it is this act of kindness by Lucius that breaks the cycle of violence. By the end of the play, when (spoiler alert!) everyone else has died gruesome deaths, Lucius becomes the new Emperor of Rome.
The Moor's Son takes place twenty years later: Lucius is now the Emperor, and in failing health, and that baby--multi-racial, son of the most reviled villain of Rome--is now a young man, raised in the court of Rome, and named after his father. I wanted to explore the experience of that man, and at the same time, revisit the ramifications of the violence of Shakespeare's play, and work out, for myself, what it was all about. The Moor's Son is a story about legacy and birthright; and also about politics and discrimination and forgiveness and self-acceptance.
How long have you been developing this work?
I had seen the Public Theater's production of Titus Andronicus in 2011, a stirring, bare-bones production (very similar to the work PAC does!) and spent the car ride home chatting about it with my husband (set designer Matthew Campbell, of PAC's recent production of Blood Wedding). We kept coming back to the end of the play: whatever happened to that baby? Did Lucius raise the child alongside his son? And what must it have been like to be a mixed-race child growing up in the court of Rome? Especially with the legacy that Shakespeare's Aaron left behind!
I called Damon the minute we got home, and I pitched him the basics of The Moor's Son. I told him I had an idea for a sequel to Titus Andronicus, and would he, would PAC, be interested in taking a look at it? In order to sweeten the deal, I told him that I would write the play completely in iambic pentameter--even though Shakespeare didn't write TA in iambic pentameter--I would do it, and it would be good, and would he take a look at it when I finished a draft? Fortunately, he said yes; unfortunately, I now had to write a sequel to a Shakespeare play in iambic pentameter!
I spent most of 2012 working out the basics--the plot, the characters, what was going on in this world, and how The Moor's Soncould be a story independent of it's inspiration. I began writing at the end of 2012, and finished a draft by the following April. Luckily, a friend who is an acting professor at Rider University offered up his students and his talent to help me develop the play further--and I was able to work on a staged reading with some exceptionally talented Rider students in May of 2013. After that, I handed it over to Damon and to PAC.
Have you collaborated with Damon before? Talk to us about the relationship between your work, this play's source material, and the PAC ... what is it like to create a new play based upon classical themes?
I had the pleasure of meeting Damon through the Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, NJ. He and his wife Charlotte had been acting with the company for some time, and I was searching for a director for a reading of my play, Donna Orbits the Moon, at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Damon accepted, and that began one of my favorite collaborative relationships.
What I love about Damon is his insightful ability to analyze text--whether it's a contemporary or period play, whether comedy or drama or something in between. More than that: his ability to appreciate text. Damon understands that every word I write is included for a purpose, and he is able to find that purpose through his direction.
And what better home to do it in than PAC? Every show I've seen with PAC has a company of artists just as eager and excited to dive into language--to tear it apart and find out what's inside of every line! I mean, I wept at Changes of Heart--I was crushed by The Rape of Lucrece! Did you see Mary Stuart? I'm still shaking!
Writing The Moor's Son was intimidating--it still is! But I learned early on that I couldn't pretend to be writing Shakespeare--this play had to be it's own animal. And although the themes of my play are inspired by many found in the Bard's plays, I think they are just as prevalent in contemporary works: The desire to honor the legacy of one's parents? Sure, that's Hamlet, but it's also Proof. The longing to fit into a world in which one feels he (or she) doesn't belong? It's Othello and Henry IV Part One and Six Degrees of Separation and Venus and Les Miserables. The motifs of The Moor's Son are adapted from classic drama, yes, but the themes are still relevant today.
Is there anything that you're hoping the audience will take away after the reading?
A close friend of mine once told me that a great play can do three things: It can entertain us, it can make us feel something, and it can make us think. A good play, he said, will do two of those things--but a great play will do all three. I hope that our audience will be able to look at this play and find moments to have all three of those experiences. Even though the play is not in it's final stages (I learn so much in a reading about where my next revision should go), if the audience is able to share those moments with each other, with the actors, with Damon and I, then that's a successful reading in my book.
Anything else you'd like to add (or plug, even!)
I can't express how grateful I am to Damon and Dan and everyone at PAC for embracing this play. I've never written anything else like it, and I'm so eager to visit the world of the play with this talented group of performers! But if anyone is interested in seeing more of my work--work that is far less Shakespearian, I promise--the Passage Theatre Company will be producing my play The Goldilocks Zone in May of this year. And it will be directed by (you probably guessed it!) Damon Bonetti! If anyone is curious, go to www.passagetheatre.org to find out more information. We would love to see you there!
Years ago I was a directing student at Texas State University w/a B-minus background in acting ... y'know, school plays, not much professional work under my belt, nothing to write home about, really. Anyway, in that first semester of my directing studies I helped out a colleague of mine by agreeing to perform in one of her directing projects due to one of her actors flaking out on rehearsals. College, y'know?
The title of the piece she was working on was "Dark Root of a Scream" (a title that just so happens to be the last line of the play we're working on here ... no spoilers ... ) by Luis Valdez, playwright and theater revolutionist known for forming El Teatro Campesino ... and the feature film, "La Bamba." I played a character named "Conejo" (Spanish name for "rabbit"), the vato (Spanish for "guy" or "dude", although w/a bit of a tougher, more hardened meaning) w/a heart.
Now, it just so happened that this colleague of mine was prepping for her directing thesis play the next year ... Federico Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding." So, long story short, after helping her out of a jam and showing her that I wasn't half-clueless on how to handle myself on stage ... she offered me the role of Leonardo. Turns out I was the right "vato" for the job when the cast list went up. I was stoked, excited, ecstatic ... any other thesaurus synonym ya wanna put there ... that was me. However, in all my self-congratulatory splendor I failed to realize ... landing a role is one thing ... working on said-role is a completely different animal.
I'm not a leading man. I don't play lovers. I don't play the type of men that get the girl. I rarely partake in stage kisses. That's never been on the resume of any of the characters I usually play. All of that is just incredibly foreign to me. Leonardo, though? He gets to do all three. I was in no place to be playing a character like that at the time. In those days I was one of those "angry-young-man" actors ... to be fair, sometimes I still feel I'm of that same type ... so, in my mind, playing a character like this, y'know, everything had to have some fire at the end of it. I was a young'in, I didn't know any better, so I attacked everything a little too heavy-handedly. Lotta' yelling, lotta' drowning the stage in my baritone, lotta' sound and fury that ... as the saying goes ... signified nothing.
Really, when it all comes down to it, I was too intense for my own good. And, of course, it had to look COOL, y'know? Ohhhhh, my goodness gracious, everything just had to LOOK so COOOOOOOL when I was an actor in college. The way I walked, the way I talked, the way I carried myself on stage ... who cares if the story was being told properly, "HEY, MAN, DID I LOOK COOL? I DID? SWEET, BRO. LET'S GO GET A BREW." Story of a hapless-young actor.
My colleague knew this. She knew I had a chip on my shoulder with an ego to match. She was okay with it, though, because she knew she could snap me out of it. I was still a student, and I wanted to soak up as much as possible through the duration of the process. I mean, I was always game for anything she wanted to work on ... what insights she could give me into playing the character ... she knew when to let me unleash ... but she knew when to draw me back ... like a horse ... and I mean that in the best possible way.
That's when it clicked.That's who this guy was to me ... he was a horse ... and that's the one image that helped me out the most way back when. Cause, really, when it all came down to it ... who am I kidding? I'm not a horseman. The last time I rode a horse was when I was 5 years old at the Gladys Porter Zoo. I'm not going to pretend to know what it's like to work on acres of land, how presumptuous is that? I'm not gonna walk in bow-legged on stage from "riding around" all day. Who am I, Roy Rogers? No.
However, when I thought of Leonardo as "the horse," himself? That's something I could wrap my brain around. When a horse is weary, you see it. When a horse is sick ... you see it. When a horse wants to runs wild ... yeah, you'll definitely see it. It didn't always work, though. Sometimes the horse just wanted to run wiiiiiiiild all rehearsal long. In my own critique when I look back, I found that I played too much of the animal ... not enough of the man. It's a trap that I fall into still.
Now, years later ... and with many thanks to PAC ... I get to rediscover who this man is. When Damon gave me a call offering me the role. I said "YES" without even thinking. We talked about how exciting it was to work together on the project, we talked some business, then we said, "Bye." I smiled ... and in came that sentence in my head again ... "It's one thing to land a role ... working on a role is a totally different animal."
It's easy to get wrapped up in Leonardo's passion. Early on in our process I came in with what I knew of Leonardo and of "Blood Wedding" from the production I was in years ago ... came in swinging and attacking with a lotta' guts. The fella exuded confidence and wanted to be the guy who controlled the room whenever he was on stage. Barking at folks, strutting around like he owned the joint ... looking like a man with nothing to lose. Mistake. Miiiiiistaaaaaaaaake. It's cool, though. I learn more from my failures than my successes. It's all a process.
The greatest challenge right now that's been presented to me as I find myself working on this character for the second time is finding where his softer side lives. Finding a man who has the potential to be endearing. Finding his most important attribute: his heart. Because when it comes down to it, Leonardo is a good man ... he's just been dealt a crappy hand in his lot in life. He's poor, his family has been given a bad name, his home life is far from ideal, he works like a dog to keep the wolf away from the door ... all in all ... he's incredibly unhappy. The one thing he has going for him, though? His love. He's in love ... and love is what's keeping him alive.
Now, I think back to the first time I ever fell in love ... oh, man, I was a wreck. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, my grades suffered, I lost all enthusiasm for work, my family didn't like being around me, I wrote awful poetry ... all this, and to think I've still never played Romeo! When I think about how vulnerable I was when love hit me for the first time, it made me happy ... made me feel alive ... but, man, did it depress the hell out of me at the same time.
I've never fought for love ... I've never had the courage to say what was on my mind when it came to love ... all I've ever done when I've been in love is listen to sad-bastard music and mull about my room like a ghost ... not always, though, I'm not that pathetic (okay, sometimes I am) ... but we have those instances, y'know? We're in love ... someone doesn't love us back ... someone falls out of love with you ... the person you love falls in love with someone else ... I mean ... yeah ... that ain't any kind of fun.
Leonardo, though? He fights. Not with his hands, but with that big heart of his I'm trying to find within him right now. He has the courage to say what's on his mind when it comes to love. I mean, he doesn't always know the best way to deliver it ... he's clumsy, he can be mean-spirited, he's confused and torn up inside ... but he makes it known. It's the one thing is his life that's important to him and it's a step in the right direction to finding his peace. To me, there's something almost insanely heroic about that. Nothing will stop him from what he wants and nothing is going to get in his way ... even if it means dying for love. For love. Love, y'know? Definitely drives folks wild. Like Johnny Cash going into a cave to die and seeing June at the end of it ... then proposing to her over 30 times until she agreed to be his wife.
I find myself reminiscing on the past loves of my life ... thinking of phrases we coined and the nicknames we used to call each other ... reading old emails and letters ... mix tapes and cd's ... remembering pictures we took at weddings, amusement parks, or out and about town. Setting Pandora stations that play nothing but ballads by Frankie Valli, Chicago, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Air Supply, Peter Cetera, The Cure, The Smiths, and Morrissey ... and walking 3 miles to and from rehearsal everyday listening to them. Watching "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" again after many years ... even though I know I bluster like a child who's lost all his sweets by the end of it. It's been a while for me, y'know ... so searching for that feeling has taken me down all sorts of avenues to try to remember what it was like. Other actors probably tap in to this a lot easier than I can ... but with the sort of characters I usually play ... finding it is a tad more challenging.
So, yeah, it's messy ... it's chaotic ... and it's difficult ... but it's necessary ... and it's good ... going through this and taking the time to examine what it was like to truly be in love is allowing me to revisit Leonardo, to revisit "Blood Wedding" in a completely different and unfamiliar way ... in a gorgeous show ... with a wonderful cast of actors, musicians, dancers ... an amazing crew ... a top notch director ... and a truly awesome company behind it all ... and y'know what? It excites the Hell outta' me.
By Carl Roa
Assistant Director, Blood Wedding
Pictured above: Carl in action at Drexel University. Photo credit Kate Raines and PLATE 3 Photography.
In August, I attended the first production meeting for Blood Wedding, where Damon sat down with me afterwards to discuss my responsibilities as an assistant director. Most of it was pretty standard: watch rehearsals, take notes, etc – but Damon was trying to make sure I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs at any point during the process.
“So, do you have any ideas for what you could be doing?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I could do some dramaturgy. I could create a research packet for the actors to read.”
“That sounds fantastic!”
That afternoon we went our separate ways, and I remember asking myself during my walk home: Why the hell would I volunteer to do that? Apparently, all it took was an internship at the Wilma Theater, and suddenly I was a qualified dramaturg.
But then I made shocking discovery: dramaturgy is actually…enjoyable. (Gasp!) I spent the month before rehearsals immersing myself in Lorcaland: I learned about the texture of the world which Lorca created for his characters and the rhythm of nature and colors he layered into his dramas. I learned more importantly about Lorca himself, and the eerie parallels between his life and mine (minus the assassination…hopefully!)
My experience with this production of Blood Wedding has proven to be eye-opening, as another discovery that was made: dramaturgy is just as gratifying as any other area of interest for me – acting, directing, writing or otherwise. People ask me questions. Designers ask for advice. The director listens to my notes. And I’ll be damned if I don’t feel important because of it.
Regardless of whatever egocentric rush of power I’m experiencing, I’ve definitely developed a deeper understanding of the dramaturg’s role in the theater. It’s a strange middle ground of researcher and artist, but also critic. Before my work with the Wilma, the idea that the dramaturg is as much an artist as the director or actors always seemed strange. But now that concept makes total sense, even if I have a lot of downtime where I’m not needed.
Would I pursue dramaturgy? Maybe. I feel as though my enjoyment was dependent on the source material – Lorca’s body of work is rife with fascinating symbology and history, and much of what he has created is based on actual tales from his past. I definitely lucked out by having my first dramaturgical experience be through a playwright whose work I respect.
What I love about Lorca is just how refreshingly punchy and atmospheric his style of writing can be. Contrary to popular belief, Lorca’s plays do have a sense of humor on occasion, and there were no shortage of potential laugh lines in Blood Wedding. I think the key to deciphering any playwright’s body of work is to let go of any preconceptions and realize that any writer worth their salt will have created a layered, nuanced piece. The possibility of humor in Lorca’s dramas is a reflection of this idea.
And quite frankly, Lorca’s style is so…un-American (I mean, duh). Some things are not clearly defined to the audience, which defies the logic of American storytelling in general. We like it when we understand what’s going on, and reject anything that’s the least bit ambiguous or open to interpretation. If all the ducks aren’t in a row, then we become disinterested. And that’s why I love Lorca – because he never had to worry about an American sensibility of playwriting. The Moon shows up after the wedding because who gives a damn? It’s spectacular and artsy and metaphorical except when it’s not - but it totally is, because Lorca wouldn’t have put the moon in so much of his work otherwise. It’s not about the meaning of symbols, but rather, the frequency in which they appear. Lorca’s background as a musician becomes apparent when one considers how often red objects are referenced in the script, and the context in which they appear. The use of red, silver, green, black, and white objects are as much musical notes in sheet music as figures on a canvas. In adding these elements to his plays, Lorca has succeeded in creating his own universe – where countryside violence and pastoral landscapes are one and the same.
So, uh, yeah. Lorca’s pretty awesome. And you should come see our show because Damon’s an awesome director. And Judith’s portrayal of the Mother is pretty awesome. And I’m proud to say that I’m a Drexel student, because our ensemble has done an awesome job of not behaving like set pieces. They’re creepy as hell.
Everything’s pretty awesome. Go see it. You won’t regret it.
Thanks for reading the PAC blog, where we share what's happening behind the scenes, what we're thinking about this week, and what classic stories are inspiring us right now.