Monday, December 22, 2008

Craig Harris' God's Trombones - Revisiting James Weldon Johnson through Music-Drama

[Picture Above: Harlem Artist, Aaron Douglas' God's Trombones, 1926]

I saw God's Trombones Sunday, December 7 with mom at Harlem Stage.

Craig Harris
does jazz, and he does jazz just right. If you don’t know about him, look him up.

Full disclosure, I’m a bit partial to this piece, as I encountered it first during my day job at the Apollo. The Apollo Theater has supported the development of this unique work of music-theatre--in the Apollo Salon Series in 2006, and a during two-week run in 2007.

God’s Trombones is a set of musical, dramatic, and sermonic pieces derived from James Weldon Johnson’s collection of poems of the same name. Craig Harris has taken that core text and set it to music, with four voices, keyboards, drums, a euphonium, tuba, and full trombone shout choir. It’s a very interesting 21st-century mix of early 20th century poetry and musical forms--Trombone Choirs have a long history in the US and Europe, and Shout Bands are an under-explored facet of musical culture in the American South. This was an evocative experience that feels timely, very “right now,” even as its roots in form and substance are nearly a century removed.

The musicianship here was first rate. I particularly enjoyed the organ solos, and of course some of Craig Harris’ own trombone features. But the band is at its best when it lays down those bluesy, full harmonies with thumping, down-home rhythms – that, yes, we get from the church.

It’s a beautiful piece that I thoroughly enjoy every time I see it. Avery Brooks directed this version, with my good friend Elizabeth Herron as assistant director. There were some changes since I saw it last. For one, there were two male voices and two female singing voices (instead of a signing trio with a fourth speaking voice last time). This means the songs made use of four part harmony. This vocal troupe also cultivated an ensemble blend, whereas the prior version really pushed forward the contrast between the different voices.

As suggested in the title, God definitely is present in this work. It has a transcendent element rooted in Western theological ideals. This is familiar territory for me. The idiom at work here is the Church, the black church. At the same time, this is no heavy-handed evangelical event. I think it’s pretty inviting to a general audience, regardless of religious background.

I also think there is more room to get into the “drama” of the music-drama. Much of this is achieved through the staging, textual rendition and dance. A single dancer helps tell some of the story. This works. Yet watching God’s Trombones this second go round, I see opportunities to bring the drama to the fore. The audience feels it; the band feels it; the vocalists feel it; the dancer feels it. But not with the exuberant abandon I see so often in the black church (from the shout to the shout out to the fall out). Everything is under firm control on stage, yet I think there is a way to access more raw emotion in way that is both sincere and sensitive, not overblown. But that’s just me, perhaps.

God's Trombones
Featuring: Craig Harris (conductor + trombone)
Kevin Anthony (vocals)
Gina Breedlove (vocals)
LaTanya Hall (vocals)
Trent Kendall (vocals)
Alfred Patterson (trombone)
Curtis Fowlkes (trombone)
Gary Valente (trombone)
Joe Daley (euphonium)
Adam Klipple (keyboards)
Tony Lewis (drums)
Bob Stewart (tuba)
and dance by Chanon Judson.

That’s all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Yep. It’s almost time to get things in line for 2009.
And that means a review of 2008 is on the way.

In a few weeks I’ll be posting all the ups and downs of my writing and production projects in 2008, setting up the plan for the new year.

But until then, I’ve come up with this preliminary list of RESOLUTIONS for 2009.

I can’t compete with team Obama in 08. They did the most, they did it GREAT! But there’s still plenty of shine to go around, and I’m gonna get my shine:


1. Make Major Paper (that means cash-money)

2. Put Major Paper in THE BANK! (that means don’t spend it up)

3. Get Love, Keep Love, Give Love, Spread Love (that means be good to folk)

4. Keep It Together – because if you ‘keep it together,’ then you don’t have to ‘get it together,’ and if you don’t have to ‘get it together,’ then nobody will say you don’t ‘have it together.’

5. Get your Stroll Rollin’ and Move On Down the Line – that means make progress with stuff.

These here are my RESOLUTIONS and I aim to keep them! With these resolutions I am sure to OPTIMIZE MY SHINE. That’s a true statement. Put some butter on it if you find it hard to swallow.

That’s it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Opening Night, on stage, on screen, on my mind.

So, as usual, I’ve been taking advantage of the NYC arts scene.

Ivan Van Hoe’s Opening Night was presented as a part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Next Wave Festival. This was a dramatic adaptation of a 1977 film of the same name. The film, apparently, was about a drama which might be derailed if the lead actress cannot pull herself together before the big premiere. I saw it Friday, December 5 with mom.

This adaption of the film (about a play) tackled the same subject matter, but (in what I can only interpret as an ambitious structural move) brought a filmic element to the live adaptation through a “documentary team” there to capture the entire behind the scenes antics on film.

The result is a stage play that unveils the story on the stage with more than one frame of reference. The audience is invited to watch the show on the stage, as well as view the action via screens around the theater broadcasting the documentary footage live.

If it seems a little confusing here, that’s more my fault. It’s very clear what’s happening when you come to the show. The lead actress doesn’t want to do this part (she thinks it makes her seem irreversibly old), and the rest of the acting troupe, the director, and the frazzled writer are at their wits end. The documentary team plays a silent witness, and for good measure, the leading actress is haunted by a spirit who is either/both her lost youth or/and a young fan who dies in an accident outside the theater.

I’ll leave the heavy criticism to the New York Times. It was existential and stuff. Suffice it for me to say, I was engaged. This show was in Dutch with subtitles, and performed very well.

This work is self-reflexive, and is gesturing towards a different relationship with its audience. The actors break the walls, and come out to sit with us in the theater (which happens often enough these days.) They also have a few rows of audience on the stage, helping to ground the "play within a play" element.

That being said, in the final analysis, I do have to wonder what was intended with all this play-within-a play-within-a-documentary stuff. I mean, it was a cute way to add multimedia to a piece that seemed to have enough going on already. My problem is, I don’t think this jerry-rigged structure did all that much for me.

Now there are two caveats to this claim.

1. I don’t speak Dutch, so while a native speaker would enjoy the option of devoting their full attention to the stage at times, I had to keep my eye on those screens and the subtitles.

2. I sat it in the nosebleed seats. And from up there, you couldn’t see the entire stage, and some of the more ambitious film work was obscured by the ceiling.

So that’s that. There’s more to be said, but it gets heavily into formal analysis, which leads into a lot of other stuff I want to get into. I should just note that expanding the toolkit to include staged drama and film is fraught with pitfalls. And I’m not sure what the advantages are besides being “different.”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ed Bullins’ The Fabulous Miss Marie and The Question of Next

Friday, Nov 21, 2008

I went with my boyfriend to a staged reading of The Fabulous Miss Marie, held at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater. This was a great experience, my first exposure to Ed Bullins’ work as a live performance.

The reading was directed by Pat Golden (with whom I hope to collaborate soon), and featured a talented cast of some seasoned pros, mid-career talent, and new faces:

Miss Marie – Tonya Pinkins

Bill Horton – Anthony Chisholm

Art Garrison – Brandon Dirden

Wanda – Krystal Hill

Toni – Lanette Ware

Ruth – Carla Brothers

Bud – James King

Marco Polo Henderson – Jesse Williams

Gafney – Nicoye Banks

Steve Benson – Jamal Mallory McCree

and Holly M. Eaton executed the stage directions and audio elements.

My hats off to the production team, and the great folk at the Cherry Lane, for getting this work back out there for people to see! Congrats and Bravo, etc., etc…

Essentially, this play takes place in Los Angeles in the 1960’s, just ahead of the Watts Riots. It is a tumultuous time in American history, and these characters are all living the African American experience of the time. However, most of the various characters who have come to Miss Marie’s house, are there to have a good time, and really aren’t all that concerned about civil rights. They are there to party down, and for me (someone who wasn’t there for the Civil Rights Movement) the point of the play is this: not all black people were that down for the Civil Rights movement. While Miss Marie and her man, and various others there to party took passing interest in what was going on (via TV), they were much more interested in seducing each other, finding a new hustle, telling secrets…little, more everyday matters that we all deal with.

I would say the play is at its best when this contrast is most stark—a great social upheaval outside, of only limited interest to Miss Marie and her crew. And it was oh so much fun to watch Miss Marie be so dismissive of what was going on, cajoling her guests to get her another drink and whatnot. This play is a necessary corrective to the myth-making that goes on when we talk about America’s Civil Rights Era.

Altogether, the Fabulous Miss Marie was a very relevant and entertaining work of live theater. It’s held up well over time, and now I’m ready to jump headfirst into Bullins other work…

Which brings me to Bullins. He was there!

A quiet unassuming man who gracefully took the stage after the show, Bullins, director Pat Golden and Angelina Fiordellisi, the Artistic Director of the Cherry Lane, opened the floor to questions. This event was part of Cherry Lane’s Master Class Series, which has held similar talks with the likes of Edward Albee, Terence McNally, Amiri Baraka, and Wendy Wasserstein.

Listening to Bullins speak—about his work, about working in the theater, about our shared past – was a real treat. I wish I had come prepared with a question or something, but the room was filled with so many much more knowledgeable than I on Bullin’s legacy, and the field in general. So I just sat back and listened.

Among other points, Anthony Chisholm wanted everybody in the audience to remember that Ed Bullins was a mentor and major influence on August Wilson. Chisholm was emphatic about this point, as well as how fortunate we were to have this legend in our midst. There was a chorus of assent in the audience, and more praise followed.

Bullins definitely deserved all that glory. I mean the man has worked! This was a well-earned moment of congratulations for a theater legend, who by the way, took all of this very graciously and with great humility. There was also a lot of discussion of how he got started, and his long stint at the Lafeyette Theater (now closed in Harlem), and other highlights from an age of American performing arts long since gone…

Later on, actor Brandon Dirden asked Bullins about what he would like to see for the next generation of theater, particularly theater that deals with the black experience. This sent Bullins spinning into an extended explanation of, frankly, his next project. I will say little about this work, as it’s not even finished yet and who knows how it will come out. But I will not that he is planning to end it with Barack Obama’s triumph.

I found his response very interesting. For a legend such as Bullins, Obama’s historic victory is all “the happy ending” he ever needed. Even if Miss Marie and her crew really wouldn’t give a damn, all of this “black struggle,” this shared American journey reaches a new climax with the election of America’s first black president. So, beyond this, Bullins doesn’t offer many specifics on “what’s next for black theater.”

The next step for black arts is open…where do we go? I suppose if someone had pressed, Bullins might say that black theater should simply continue….That is how he ended the talk, he told everyone to “keep on keepin’ on.” Do not give up. He was clear about that. But this living legend offered no other mandates to the next generation, no manifesto on where or how the theater should focus its energies; it just wasn’t in his frame of mind.

He’s going to write a play that ends with Obama. Obama is the happy ending.

This is so fascinating to me because his generation deserves this moment. And, while I would have loved to hear more about his hopes for the future of the field, it was so wonderful to see an artist who was apparently content, who was actually pleased even (at least for the moment) with where we were as Americans. Why should Bullins bother with what happens after “happily ever after?”

It’s for the next generations to figure that out. For us (somewhat) younger folk, all-that-is-obama points to a new direction perhaps, but certainly not a conclusion. “The Question of Next” is very heavy on our minds. It remains to be seen how we will answer it.

Of course, I have a few ideas that I look forward to sharing, but more on that later.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Musings -- New Thresholds of Possibility and Sci-Fi Geek Out

The blogosphere is already crowded with 222 too many “Age of Obama” essays, and really, this blog isn’t about politics. Yet as I sit here musing about the shifting American social fabric, I am wondering how all of this talk (and hopefully action) about “change” is going to inform creative expression and intellectual inquiry.

In other contexts, I have described my own work (as a whole) as “writing towards change.” I like to think of my writing as working against and through oppressive regimes of thought. This is a moral imperative for me. I write to help forge a path to a brighter future.

However, as I write towards change, I am writing within dramatic and literary traditions that seem to understand me best as a minority--peripheral to the larger scheme of things. I cannot deny the truth of these statements: I am black. I am American. I am male. I am gay. I would not presume to deny similar statements from others, but what disturbs me is the persistent unspoken, but commonplace, belief that these are unassailable limits of existence. It is as if we cannot even imagine alternatives.

And so my battleground for change as an artist is the human imagination itself. I find my tools for change outside the real. I seek possibility in the fantastic, in the unbelievable that goes beyond mere spectacle and enters the speculative.

It is this fact of speculative fiction—the possibility—that has always made it my favorite genre. I am a champion of SF precisely because it challenges our limits, brings us to new thresholds. Does science fiction predict our future? Yeah....but I think that’s a bit of a crude way of looking at it. I do think that sci fi at its best anticipates our future. And stuff like Star Trek attempts to envision a future worth working towards. SF helps to articulate possibility.

If you are of the mind that pop culture helps shade the American imagination, I invite you to consider the impact of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in Star Trek…

Consider the impact (decades later) of Avery Brooks, as not only a crew member, but as the Commander (and later Captain) on Star Trek Deep Space Nine…And that’s just Star Trek.

There has been a concerted, if imperfect, effort to be more inclusive in science fiction in so many interesting works…and not just in race…consider Sigorney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien...and those are just a few pop culture ones…

This week has been a rare moment where we have rushed head-first across a threshold into our future. The concept of a “black president” has been a marker in the African-American psyche for as long as I can remember. I would say it has been something always deemed possible, but probably not “in our lifetimes.” And yet, here we are.

So now, as we come together to break this historical barrier, I am wondering what other articulations of the future will preoccupy my imagination. There’s a lot of work to do, of course. Plenty to “write towards change” about. And…it’s as if all of a sudden I have a bit more latitude, especially as a person of color, to set my sights on new possibilities…hmmm. Interesting to see where this will lead.

I want to know what Christopher Columbus would think. What would Thomas Jefferson say? Harriet Tubman? Frantz Fanon…Queen Victoria…W.E.B. DuBois….Walt Whitman…Emperor Hirohito…Walt Disney…what about Black Elk? I want to chat with James Baldwin and Octavia Butler about it…I want to see what history would say about this moment…about this future that is somehow already here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Updates of Late: The Lattice Crashes

So October is moving into its last half, and a lot has happened. For starters, the River View Players presented a reading of the The Lattice Crashes at the end of September.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to evade my babblings about this piece, The Lattice Crashes is a play in two acts that looks at contemporary times from, like, a thousand years from now—race, gender, politics, it’s all different. And trying to make sense of our world is a real humdinger:

Unless a computer technician can uncover “the facts” about a college hate crime in 2002, the incident will be deleted from a vast, futuristic supernetwork--the Lattice. But no one is telling the truth: not the victim, not the assailant, and certainly not their parents.

I directed the piece, with a talented set of performers:

* Mercedes - the network technician - was played by Ms. DuEwa Frazier
* Kitty - the archival computer - was played by Ms. Teresa Michelle Lasley
* Patterson - Junior Member of the Council on Historical Integrity (Mercedes’ Boss) - was played by Mr. Rhonney Greene
* Sean Robertson, III – the victim – was played by Mr. Kelvin Summerhill
* Avery Harrison Cole – the assailant – was played by Mr. Clinton Lowe
* Debra Robertson – Sean’s mother – was played by Ms. Shanae Sharon
* Charlene Morris – Avery’s guardian – was played by Ms. Tanya Hartwell

Esteemed playwright, Laurence Holder, narrated the piece.

The Lattice Crashes strives towards emotional integrity, even if the characters themselves are challenged by the notions of truth and fact. Lots of fun, and the cast did a great job, especially with such limited prep time. The performance was lively, and the audience was engaged. During the talkback and a few after-show chats, I got a lot of useful feedback. I'm always grateful for that.

I’d say all in all, The Lattice Crashes has passed the essential audience test. Of course there’s still a lot of work to do. I just finished the core rewrites, and I’m looking forward to taking the next steps with this piece. It’s already opening up other opportunities on other projects, so I’m quite pleased.


In other news, I saw a few other plays and creative pieces that I, of course, have strong opinions on. I won’t name them at this juncture (liked one, had some problems with the other), I’ll just end this entry with a cautionary tale:

Be careful on the streets of New York after you have watched a play you weren’t necessarily impressed with. Yes, you paid your ticket and have a right to be critical, but be mindful—those streets are public. You never know when someone sensitive-- an audience member, or producer, or actor, or whoever--might be lurking right around the corner just as you get into your most dastardly disparaging derision.

But you know what else, I don’t take it back. Nope. I don’t. I just need to watch my mouth.

That’s all for now. I’ll get into detail after there’s been a bit more distance so those who know me, or know what I’m talking about won’t be able to figure it out as easily.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Updates of Late - Fire Finished Up and a new Sunday Series

So it's been a minute since I posted last.

My hats off to the entire team at Freedom Train Productions for the August's Fire festival. After Sharon Bridgforth’s work, the festival showcased works in development by Harrison David Rivers and Aurin Squire, all accomplished writers who clearly have a future in playwrighting.

In other news, the River View Players launched their new performing arts series Sunday, September 7th at Café Largo in Harlem. It was a lovely event, and very well attended by various leaders and luminaries in the Uptown New York Arts scene.

The weekly series at the Cafe will feature a variety of dramatic readings, film screenings, poetry, monologues and other performances every Sunday at 4 P.M. I’m happy to report that I’m involved with two projects that have been selected for the series:

September 21, 2008 – the River View Players will present excerpts of It Goes Unsaid, Under the Spell Production’s anchor show, of which I am a co-author. We are looking forward to a new interpretation of this work.

September 28, 2008 – the River View Players will present excerpts of my new play, The Lattice Crashes, which examines a college hate crime from the vantage point of the distant future.

Both events are free and open to the public so come on up to the Café!
There’s more information on the River View Players Website.

That’s all for now.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Derek saw delta dandi at Fire!

So my friends at Freedomtrain Productions kicked off their Fire! New Play festival last week with Sharon Bridgforth’s delta dandi.

This was an evocative, poetic performance piece presented by four voices in a spoken-word style. The content of the piece is derived, as the title suggests, from the Southern delta—the lives, struggles, and joys of the folk in that culture. It is rich material to draw from, but what sets this piece apart from others, in my opinion, is how the playwright’s mastery of structure enables an exemplary dramatic experience. It was as if the audience was immersed in a jazz quartet’s jam session, with riff’s, harmonies, dissonance, and overlapping rhythm…

But this was not your typical spoken-word poetry night. delta dandi doesn’t tread heavily in explosive outbursts and the all-too-familiar critiques of capitalism, stolen homelands, racial tension, etc. delta dandi operates on a different wavelength. Subdued, layered and multivocal, delta dandi is in conversation with a literary aesthetic that refuses absolutes in favor of atmosphere.

delta dandi is very much an idiom, where the meaning cannot be apprehended in the direct approach to the text. The grammar of the work is where I locate its beauty; this piece jazzes the sentence. The musicality of the work, expressed by four very talented performers, invites the audience to experience sound, beats, shared expression. Substantively, it is a conjure—a personal and communal invocation of the past—a calling up and confrontation of memory, through word.

…And it is beautiful.

Days later as I write this response, a question lingers in my mind. This invocation works through the collective pain that people of color in the delta have endured. Through its many facets, this piece confronts a general trauma (with specific instances) that gives the experience its pathos and roots it firmly in the African-American experience. This is all well and good, but I want to know what we, as audiences in the 21st Century, do with this sort of dramatic experience.

It is all too easy to participate in the experience as history, as blood memory, as something that is no longer material. The conjure, after all, is temporary, and the pain invoked relies on a sort of communal understanding of a historicized world. This scene is clearly removed from the present; the conjuring act is a bridge. But I wonder about the distancing side-effect. What happens when we locate the trauma of the drama in a mythological, remembered history? Does delta dandi enable a severance from the clearly distressing circumstances of many people of color in the south today? I don’t know.

On one hand, the audience is rewarded by taking part, by sharing and working through this experience. But on the other hand, the world itself seems very much frozen in a moment of ago with no clearly articulated pathway to today. The conjure finishes, the dream/memory vanishes, and we are left more aware and troubled by a pain (and joy) that once was. This becomes a pain we cannot do anything about but remember and reflect upon, an experience I encounter as a history of somewhere else. Not as present. Not here.

I just wish there were some way to conjure a world like this without letting the audience get away in the end. It would be interesting to see the conjure overtake our present, the living moment. The memory could leap out from its assigned place in history and make trouble in the now of it. But that, really, would be a different piece.

In the end, delta dandi succeeds because its elements work in synergy. Blues/jazz conventions color and inform the content...the experience is breathtakingly evocative, with a melody I look forward to experiencing again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Barbara Ann Teer and the National Black Theatre

Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre, has passed away. On Monday, July 28, I had the privilege of witnessing part of the funeral procession through the streets of Harlem. It was a celebration of the life of a driving force in American performance. She helped forge a new path for live Theater, championing the cultures of people of African descent.

Reading about her legacy, I realize how indebted I am, as an artist of color, to her dedication to changing the fields of arts and entertainment. At the same time, I recognize this moment as one of reflection.

I, and future generations, and the beneficiary of that struggle. And as I reflect on this sentiment, I am filled with humility and awe at the task before me. As an artist of color, I embrace my role in this ongoing legacy. I am hopeful to make my own mark in the African-American cultural tradition.

Yet at the same time, I am intrigued and motivated by the opportunities to reach, speak to, and speak for, a broader audience…and because of the work of people like Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, I know that I can.

Rest In Peace.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Playwrights on Writing for Film and TV

After work today I headed down to the Public Theater to attend “Stage and Screen: Playwrights Talk About Writing for Film and Television.”

It was a forum produced by the Summer Play Festival at the Public in partnership with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB). Moderated by Katherine Oliver, the commissioner of the MOFTB, the forum featured three working playwrights—Keith Bunin, Adam Rapp, and Beau Willimon .

I only got to see the last 30 minutes or so of the session, but it was a confidence booster for me. One of the major points that hit home was playwrights’ discussion about how self-production is what just about everyone does to get into the field. You gotta do it yourself first. I’m at that stage right now, so I was pleased to hear that even if you groom your career with MFA’s and whatnot, getting in the door usually takes plain old persistence and sweat and magic fairydust.

They also noted how it is virtually impossible to eke out a modest living on playwriting alone, and gave interesting anecdotes about their experiences writing for film and TV. One thing I would have liked to hear more about is how you can get income speaking engagements. (They said this is how Tony Kushner pays his bills, not really from his royalties and whatnot. I wanted details! I can do a speaking engagement too!)

A pretty good forum in my opinion, and I applaud the folks who put it together.

That’s all for now.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Updates of Late

Well I’ve been busy lately, and haven’t been in touch with you all.

July 12, 2008
I attended the Indie Theater 2nd Convocation. Wow. It was great to be among so many professionals working in Independent Theater, and I am every excited to participate more fully in this community. What can I say—Indie Theater is what I do, I just didn’t know we could call it Indie. The other term (off-off broadway) implies a certain aspiration to be on the Great White Way. That’s just not the case for all of my shows, and Indie Theater better conveys that point. And that’s just the name, there’s a lot more to it… Go Indie!

June 19, 2008
A few weeks ago was Juneteenth, and my friends at Freedom Train Productions brought it in with an evening of Theater called After the Ballot. This event helped support the month-long festival they produce every year, Fire! A scene from my new play, The Lattice Crashes, was featured for After the Ballot. It was a great evening.

I finished a draft of the Lattice Crashes about two months ago. In a nutshell this two-act play follows a technician in the distant future charged with fixing a computer archive of human history. A 21st century “gay-bashing” event is giving her trouble because everyone is lying about it, but she’d rather hit 'delete' than figure out the truth.

I’m a member of the Harlem Arts Alliance/Columbia University Dramatic Writers Workshop, and I was supposed to get feedback for the Lattice Crashes from a mentor in the program. But I missed my feedback day!!!! (Long story. Completely my fault.)

May 27th 2008
It Goes Unsaid went to London. We actually got it there for the Accidental Festival. It was tough work (but not much new writing). The show was a success, I’d say, since we’ve been invited back. That was an experience that warrants a full blog entry. But we're a bit burnt out at Under the Spell. We are planning more projects for August though. I guess I’ll get to sharing more about London sometime. Bother me about it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Launch of a Season of Collaboration

On Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:30 PM, Under the Spell Productions and FeVA Productions, Inc., will open their season of collaboration at Shetler Studios, located at 939 Eighth Avenue, Third Floor, New York, NY (between 55th and 56th Street).

This event is free and open to the public. I'll be there, probably hosting or something.

The evening begins with a staged reading of You’ve Changed, the winning script of the first annual Words Rising New Dawn Reading Series. The drama tells the story of a young Haitian-American woman and her family dealing with love, struggle and triumph. You've Changed is a humorous and poetic celebration of life told in eight vignettes.

The evening continues with a question and answer session with the playwright, followed by an announcement of the spring/summer season.

You can get more info on the


Sunday, February 17, 2008

I saw a great Broadway play last weekend: Passing Strange

Passing Strange is a coming of age story, following a young man on a quest for something called “the real.” The journey carries him across Europe as he puts emotional and physical distance between his roots as a middle –class African-American youth in Los Angeles. I really enjoyed this show. It was fun, creative, and, unlike so many musicals on Broadway, actually had some substance behind it.

The show’s primary marketing image is a silhouette of the narrator, Stew, and recalls B.B. King to me. I thought this would be a blues show. But the cast (six actors, a band of four, and Stew himself) infused the show with a vibrant energy--a real pleasure to watch. By the end of Act I, I was convinced Passing Strange had the artistic strength to capture audiences looking for the next RENT.

The second act is also strong. Yet towards the end, the vivid and rich tapestry brought forth by the supporting characters falls away, leaving in its wake something more introspective. This worked, driving the core themes of self-discovery to the fore, but I found myself yearning for something slightly different. It’s as if Passing Strange “passed” on the opportunity to become a complete ensemble piece. But that’s okay, the work still resonates, and I wish it a successful run.
And that’s my two cents.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Some thoughts on history, race, and what's next...

I am watching Henry Louis Gates’ African American Lives II on channel Thirteen right now. Professor Gates is mining our nation’s history, focusing on African-American descendants of slaves, and the stories of their ancestors. It’s a very engaging piece of work, and I find myself swept up in Gates’ depiction of our shared cultural heritage.

When I watch something like African-American Lives, I am quite proud and interested in that history, in those people. My own people I would say. And I don’t want to forget these stories. At the same time, I realize that this tragic American history, the long tale of how and why people of African descent came to be Americans, necessarily highlights the failings of this nation. It underscores our historical racist legacy. And I want to be beyond that. I don’t want to be mad at anyone. No one alive today is responsible for what their ancestors did or did not do.

So my question is this, how do we negotiate race in a healthy, constructive manner today? How do we understand the history of diversity in this nation without reinforcing the types of behaviors and misunderstandings that make up racism in all of its forms? How do we put race in its place wihtout e-racing it?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Performing Arts vs. Entertainment

So I’m a writer, right? It’s want I do, what I want to get paid to do. Right now, I’m heavy into writing plays. It’s just how things are coming together. Of course, I’d like to get into film, and novels and whatnot. But at present, the opportunities are in live theater. I do live in NYC after all.

I just got word of a grant to support It Goes Unsaid, a performance piece I co-authored with Rhonney Greene and Teresa Lasley at Under the Spell Productions. The grant is a very encouraging accomplishment, and I’m thrilled to have been a “winner” in that regard. Of course, it doesn’t really cover the costs in actually mounting the production. But it recognizes the “artistic merit” of what It Goes Unsaid does as a performance piece.

What in the world is a performance piece anyway? Well, as I understand it, a performance piece is a work meant to be observed live. It takes elements of conventional theater, but also samples from other kinds of modes of expression: dance, music, spoken word, photography, film etc. So it is play in the loosest sense of the word, but doesn’t necessarily follow a set dramatic format.

It Goes Unsaid is a very exciting project to be working on. And at the same time, it presents its own set of challenges. Plays are a bit different. There are set avenues of success for them. But a performance piece? Broadway doesn’t really pick those up exactly…sort of, well there are things like Blue Man Group…but I’m not sure that really captures what the breadth a “performance piece” can cover.

It Goes Unsaid is a pretty serious work, dealing directly with race, self-hatred, misogyny, and a whole host of other social issues. It’s pretty engaging, I’d say, and was commissioned to be so. It’s an artsy socially-conscious kind of thing. And I must say I love it. At the same time, I want to take it BIG.

But how?

I’m reaching a bit of a divide that I feel is unfair: performing arts vs. entertainment. Performing arts is what I would call more culturally responsible artistic work—something a like jazz concert or the ballet, or basically anything that Hollywood has trouble with. Entertainment is just the opposite: the stuff that is easy to like by just about everyone.

Of course I want to do both. And I think the best kind of art works in both realms. Right now, It Goes Unsaid is working just fine in the performing arts side of things, and its entertaining. Most definitely. But…is it viable as an entertainment production?

As we speak, my partners and I are wracking are brains on how to take our Performance Piece BIG, as in real big with REAL BIG PROFIT. We have some vested interests in taking it in that direction. But, as any Theater professional will tell you, profit margins in live entertainment are narrow. So I’m looking to “think outside the box,” and use other clichés of creativity as I try to nail down realizing the full potential of my “performance piece.”

That’s all for now. Let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ruminations on a Social Pressure Cooker - The Breaking Point

In the summer of 2007 I reached a breaking point with someone. I don’t think it’s fair, or really that productive, to use my blog as a point to blast someone who isn’t around to defend herself. But suffice it in 2007, I began to internalize a certain unease, a certain dissatisfaction with my relationship with a single individual.

This person is someone I actually have a great deal of respect, even admiration for, but our approaches to life seem worlds apart. And sometime over the summer, due to circumstances that had forced us to cooperate, I decided I just couldn’t do it anymore. I remember the conversation. I interrupted her and simply told her this wasn’t working.

It was a break-up. Not a romantic one, but emotional nonetheless, with lasting consequences.

That wasn’t the beginning of the end of that relationship. It was poisoned from the beginning, I would say. I was already stretched to my limit. And she entered the situation not quite aware of what was going on. Once she grasped the magnitude of the situation, stress moved in full time, and what became a tense environment became a distressed, incessant crisis--

--Which seemed to work for her. There was plenty of blame to go around, and I was definitely as much a part of the problem as the possible solution. But it was as if she wasn’t as interested in solving things, making things better, than dwelling on the impossibility of the problem, picking at the scab, infecting the wound. I wouldn’t say this pleased her in any way, but it just seemed to be a prevalent tendency of hers that I found…well bewildering.

I removed myself from the situation. It hurt…both of us (I think.) But it was the right decision. I don’t think either of us could argue about that now. (Although we seemed to be able to argue about everything else.)

Looking at it now, I should have seen the writing on the wall weeks (or even months) before that final argument, that final “civil discussion” where I lost all interest in “working things out.”

It wasn’t a specific word that was said. It wasn’t a look in the eye, or a lack of communication. (at least I think we were communicating.)

It felt cumulative. I was holding in, internalizing problems that existed prior to my relationship with this woman, but her presence, our method of interaction seemed to…

To what? Highlight the absurdity of the situation? Exacerbate what was already a wounded world I let myself live in?

I’m just not sure. And I want to know more about what we mean when we say “this is the last straw.” Is it really? How?

So I have to wonder, what is a breaking point?
What is your breaking point?

Friday, January 11, 2008

2008 Goals: Gotta Get It Together a Bit Better

I am tasking myself with some key objectives for my writing career this year.
For 2008 I will pursue the following:



• Teena Keeper
She resists---what is the proper method to pursue her resistance?
• The Lattice Crashes – Draft II

• The Apocalyptist Episodes

• Nightqueen Re-exploration Ghaljun MUSIC

• Musical _The engenue, the diva, the other one.


• Princess Grace Playwriting Award 3/15/08
• Scriptapalooza 4/05/08
• Nicholl Fellowship 4/15/08
• Sundance Screenwriters Lab 4/15/08
• Walt Disney Studios/ABC Fellowship 5/15/08
• Final Draft Big Break 5/15/08
• Yale Drama Series 8/10/08
• New Dramatists 8/15/08
• ASA International Screenplay Competition 10/01/08
• Script Magazine 9/15/08

Summer 2008 The Public Theater Emerging Playwrights

Spring 2008 New York Theater Workshop Playwrights of Color

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

2007 in Review: Creative Writing Goals

So 2007 is over. I set some pretty lofty creative writing goals last year, building off of some minor breakthroughs in 2006. But how far did I get this past year? Let’s have a look:

January 2007

Goal: Nightqueen - 2nd Draft Moonrise

Well... I did do a new draft of NightQueen (In May!). I’m almost ready to get a staged
reading going to see how all this fantasy, urban wilderness, epic would really work on the stage…
Getting there. Getting there.

Feb. 2007
Goal: It Goes Unsaid - New Draft:

Hey! I worked on a new draft of that too, with my creative partners. We even put up a show in July, and…well, I’m not going to get into all of that right here. Yeah a new draft was completed, but is it all we hoped and dreamed for...we're still working.

March 2007
Goal: Finish Stardate Version 2 - Single Alien

Result: Hmmm. Well I did come up with something. I mean doesn’t a mock reality show depicting aliens on blind dates appeal to you? It sounded like a good idea to me, but…well I’ve always thought comedy was the hardest thing to write. I put this baby on hold in April.

July 2007
Goal: Revisit Teena Keeper character

Result: Ahhh, Teena Keeper. Who is she? Ever since I wrote that first story about her back in college, she has lurked in the shadows of my imagination. Her story is…immense and intense, and, well, I have to say I didn’t get back to writing it in 07. I thought about though, an awful lot. Yeah. I worked it I guess...yeah! SHAME ON ME!!!


Hmm. Looks like I slacked a bit creatively here. But in my own defense I did write some other stuff. Theater has really began to take over my life. I landed a job at the Apollo in July, and I’ve been soaking up all I can about how a Theater really works. At the same time, I’ve really been putting my time into some new scripts. In 2007, I wrote the first draft of a new full-length play, The Lattice Crashes. And I have a loose collection of some sci-fi vignettes that, eventually, will get me back to Teena.

But, really, I got away from all the writing. And I have no one to blame but myself. I’m giving myself a "C" creatively in 2007.

Yes, it’s hard to stay focused. Yes, it’s hard to stay motivated. But excuses do not a career as a writer make.

What does that mean? It means for 2008, I have to get it together!

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

2008: Online Writing Headquarters - Reimagined and Invigorated

Well here I am on my very own googles blogspot. I intend to dedicate this webspace to the development of my career as a writer, specifically a creative writer of dramatic material.

I have to say that I think blogging is really neat, but I don't feel compelled to post my opinions and whatnot on every little thing. I've never really had a problem with sharing my opinions on this or that. I think there are enough people doing that.

This blog is my public portal to advance my long-standing aspirations as a creative writer. I'm writing here for your feedback, encouragement, support, and advice. That's what I'm after.

-Derek Lee McPhatter