So lately I’ve had my face down, working hard on the stage adaptation of the novel. It hasn’t been a solo project by any stretch. In 7 months I wrote and produced Occupy my Heart, working with an incredible director, Hannah Freidman, and an amazing cast which filled to capacity every theater, performed on the radio and drew national attention. Critically, the play was a smash hit. The play was followed up quickly with the critically aclaimed novel The Last Man, with an amazing cover designed by a fellow activist and friend, Brian Murray. My fingers were still smoking from completing and publishing a full length novel in just a three and a half months when I began work on the stage version.
I’d gone back to Hannah, my director, and elicited the expertise of Brian’s wife, Sarah, to begin what would be the effort to bring the novel to life before audiences. In part time was a prime consideration, but Occupy my Heart was my first foray into theater, and I realized from the start how big of a learning curve I was on. I was wise enough to realize the immeasurable expertise of my cast and director as I learned and grew through an amazing and ardous…and often emotional… process.
Hannah and Sarah would guide the writing process, offering critiques and suggestions for making the script workable. Deeply connected with the story, it becomes too easy for the writer to lose focus on critical aspects of the story. The writer often carries assumptions and leaps of faith while imagining and visualizing a story and the characters. they might be the greatest hazard to the storyteller. Those assumptions can overlook simple motivations of characters or the believability of relationships between characters. I needed that critical feedback, and as agonizing as it sometimes could be, I encouraged Hannah and Sarah to “rip the story” apart and be brutal. They were-in a constructive and specific manner that help create a great script and brought us to this moment.
But there was more. I had written the story as a male character. The first script was for a man. In March I did several improv shows with the cast from Democracy Burlesque, and believed during one of the shows I’d found my male lead. It wouldn’t be an easy character to cast nor would it be the easiest to play. I wanted William Shakespeare meets Aldous Huxely meets Chris Rock. It felt like providence that I might have found the perfect man for the role. All that went out the window a week later I was at a theater piece written by a friend when Donier Tyler, one of my actresses from Occupy my Heart floored me with an incredibly powerful performance. Up to this point Donier had played light or comedic characters. From that moment, seeing her in that other role, I knew the Last Man had to be a Black Woman. Instantly the true heart and soul of that piece seemed fulfilled.
In May, Donier rehearsed a 6 minute piece for a gallery show, a step forward in realizing the play as a whole performance. At first I described the piece from my perspective, still thinking in terms of a male character, telling Donier, “do it this way, but make it sound like a woman,s voice.” A bit later, realizing how silly that sounded I said,”I want you. Just be Donier in the part.”
From the first rehearsal Donier was stunning in the piece, but it just wasn’t…it was missing something, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. I was far too close to the story. Hannah stepped in once again. This time Donier portayed a more feminine voice, but there still was something missing. We were closer but still not quite there. I was clearly frustrated, and worried as we drew nearer to the performance, fearing the audience wouldn’t believe the piece.My wife Ana had been thinking alot about the piece. With a background in women’s studies, she asked if she could sit in on the rehearsal. the ater is all about community. I agreed immediately.
I made an Italian-inspired dinner for the girls, on a near perfect spring evening. At last we moved to the livingroom. Before a p ainting of our late friend, the artist Montana Morrison, Donier began.
It seems incredible that a Black woman might not come to her Black voice naturally. As we move through power systems in society, no voice has been marginalized more than the those of Black women. For a novel that speaks to systems of power, when Donier at last uncovered that true voice it was a revelation, and a comfirmation that we were about to embark on a truly revolutionary project.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKh2xH8ngTc&feature=relmfu
This Saturday at 7pm, we will take a monumental step forward in bringing the novel to the stage in a full public reading of the stage adaptation at quimby’s bookstore 1854 W. North Avenue in Chicago. It will be a communal, organic reading with a full cast, including some volunteers-or conscripts from the audience to take on a few parts. we’ll elicit sound effects from the audience, so that no one can escape being a part of the play.
This is a dream of mine, but as with the first play and the novel, it is the community that makes those dreams reality. We are all 1%ers in our minds, exalted and glorious in our own egos. It is the 99% that gives anything that we endeavor possibility and meaning, and I thank that community everyday for helping me realize even a few of those dreams, and hope that I am giving back that blessing ju st as surely.