Taking Center Stage: Under-told Stories in the American Theatre
Sheldon Epps, Denise J. Hart and Dr. Edna Greene Medford speak about history, representation and under-told stories in the American theatre with Tricia Patrick.
As we reflect on the impact of the past weekend’s A First Look readings, read a recap of the February 3 pre-reading panel “Taking Center Stage: Under-told Stories in the American Theatre,” moderated by Director of Education Tricia Patrick, with Sheldon Epps (Senior Artistic Advisor at Ford’s Theatre), Denise J. Hart (Professor of Playwriting and Dramaturgy at Howard University) and Dr. Edna Greene Medford (Professor of History Emerita at Howard University).
FORD’S THEATRE: Sheldon – Tell us about the impetus for the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions.
SHELDON EPPS (Senior Artistic Advisor): We didn’t assign playwrights any subject matter but pushed them toward the direction of telling unsung heroes. The American theatre has existed by telling stories about well-known and famous people. Often, they’re not so truthful. So, we really want to go beyond that canon of work to tell these stories that most people will not know about and the stories behind the stories. Even Maynard Jackson, the most famous person being represented here: people know the history, but they don’t really know the man. Pearl was really interested in telling the story of the man and the personal experiences people had with him.
FORD’S THEATRE: Outside a visit to a museum or a historical society, what role do you think history plays in our lives?
DR. EDNA GREENE MEDFORD (Professor of History Emerita, Howard University): History is with us constantly. We can’t get away from it. We cannot separate ourselves. The present can’t be separate from the past. I have immigrant students who know American history better than Americans. What I did when I was teaching; I had my students [go] to Lincoln Cottage and those kinds of places. I realized that these kids who were preteens and up to 18 were not going to listen to me. I had students write a play on the Civil War based on Black families. They learned so much just by doing that. [With] Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda really hit it; taking the story to where people are, making history active and relatable. It’s not just about dates and facts.
FORD’S THEATRE: Define the practice of dramaturgy.
DENISE J. HART: You get five dramaturgs up here; you’re going to get five different answers. Production dramaturgy is attempting to conduct pre-production interest: Do research, research on a particular genre, history of the production. It’s about history, environment, language. We offer something to enrich the audience with engagement, an attempt to invite the audience to interrogate from a perspective that will enhance it.
EPPS: My short definition: the playwright is the body giving birth, the dramaturg is the midwife, it’s the doula.
FORD’S THEATRE: In what way do stories based on a moment in history or a person from the past advance our cultural evolution as a nation and as how BIPOC people see themselves as a part of that nation?
GREENE MEDFORD: Stories are evolution makers and markers. This year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and the cultural history of hip-hop is undeniable; poet form, lyricism, body and art, a story form translating culture.
EPPS: I believe that when historical plays are good – plays, musicals, whatever the form – we see ourselves in them. It’s not like we’re over there as the audience and the play is up here and there’s a separation between the two. History, through drama, should inform us about who we are and what we are right now. Otherwise, it’s a pageant.
GREENE MEDFORD: The American narrative has to be an inclusive narrative. Not even from a racial but also a class perspective. We have a tendency to look at great men but there were so many others advancing that history.
FORD’S THEATRE: How do you approach telling story in that past that’s fictional vs. bent in a real story? How do historians react when it’s so far from historical history?
HART: When it’s a real person, you have the opportunity to see materials to look through. When someone is doing research on a time period when they weren’t alive, I encourage them to research as much as possible, so the audience knows the history.
EPPS: Research can’t show in any dramatic form. One of the things I tell playwrights is “Well, this is great, but your research is showing” when the scene stops being about the scene, and it becomes about how much research you’re doing. The arc is to do research and have the play emerge truthfully and honestly, but the play should not become a PowerPoint presentation.
GREENE MEDFORD: Historians do it so differently; we are aiming to tell the truth about the truth. We have to decide what is the truth if we know it is an artistic piece. Unless it’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. It makes a little bit of sense if you have a warped mind. Art and history are two different things, you can blend them.
FORD’S THEATRE: When working on a play that is based on a historical figure or moment, how do you decide which facts to stay true to and which ones can be subject to poetic license?
HART: It depends on what story you’re trying to tell and offer. That will affect what you say in those gaps. I believe you can use a real person and if that person has passed on, you can begin to fictionalize. Keep in mind context and what you’re trying to say. But there must be something truthful you want to be in conversation with an audience about.
EPPS: History often is about what was out front, what was done in public. Drama is often what’s behind closed doors. What did Thomas Jefferson say to Sally? The richness of drama sometimes has to come from an understanding of fact but a deeper understanding of what was not public, what was private.
FORD’S THEATRE: W.E.B. DuBois wrote about, in The Souls of Black Folks, double consciousness and the struggle African Americans have to remain truthful to black culture while assimilating to society. What do we make of the evolution of this duality, from civil rights to now?
GREENE MEDFORD: When DuBois wrote that, it was at a time when African Americans were still trying to assimilate. Today (and I tend to be a pessimist by nature), things have gotten so out of control that African Americans really don’t care to be assimilated. I don’t want to speak for the average African American, but a lot of us are pleased in our own skin. But not in our perspective of being full-fledged Americans. In terms of wanting to be assimilated; no. We can be African, of African origin, and still love this country, but we don’t want to behave in a way that is foreign to us.
EPPS: Part of that duality is that it took a long time before they [writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin] could write freely for themselves without the white gaze. I want to tell my story truthfully. I take inspiration from Toni Morrison’s phrase: “Knocking the little white man off your shoulder.”
FORD’S THEATRE: We talk about under-told stories, in this place that continues to explore Lincoln’s legacy which is definitely not under-told. Who is a figure from history whose story fascinates you that you think should be elevated to a larger stage?
GREENE MEDFORD: William Trail, born in Montgomery County, Maryland: At the age of 5, he was enslaved, sold twice in Spartanburg, South Carolina (by his own father, a white man), emancipated himself, acquired property and sued everyone under the sun … for trespass, slander. He shows what the human spirit is and the fact that it doesn’t die. Those are the kind of stories that make a difference. A lot of the stories end at liberation, when that’s the story that’s just beginning.
HART: Howard Thurman: In 1935, he and his colleagues were sent as delegates to India and ended up being the first Black people to meet with Gandhi and brought Gandhi teachings back to us. He affected civil rights culture, MLK, anyone who kept Thurman’s book with them. He helped King influence spiritual growth and social transformation. That moment, how they got to India and almost got barred because they were Black, was a pivotal moment that precedes the Civil Rights Movement.
EPPS: SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! about the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not unknown but little known, and little known considering she was a true giant and is crediting with creating a synthesis between gospel and rhythm and blues. Any great R&B artist, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney and more point to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You’re lucky that story will actually be here at Ford’s Theatre.
Daniella Ignacio is the Communications Manager at Ford’s Theatre. Learn more about her at www.daniellaignacio.com.