I had the pleasure of meeting and then being directed by playwright Athol Fugard (Master Harold And The Boys…, Blood Knot), months after completing the fourth and final year of the BFA actor training program at York University in Toronto, Canada. I was performing in the Montreal premiere of his new play (at the time) My Children! My Africa!, and the director Maurice Podbrey was kind enough to invite his fellow South African to fly in to Montreal fresh from his Broadway opening to direct our cast for a few days. In many ways these few days rank as the most important in my artistic life.
The meal breaks were the best. He would share stories with us. Backstories of where the ideas for his plays came from. All of them moments in his life. He was an intense old man. For all his success he looked a bit derelict. Burned out by life. Hungry. But he could tell a mean story. I was mesmerized by his energy.
Nothing I did on stage was right. I gave him my best “well studied character development”, my best “‘scene study revelation” jargon.Â Nothing seemed to impress him. At dinner one night I went for it. I challenged his creative understanding of his play with my 23-year old understanding of his play, fully expecting him to be impressed with my analysis. Out of nowhere he exploded at me, scaring other patrons in the restaurant. “It’s not about bloody beats and units, man!” he shouted. “It’s life! Walk a life! Don’t play the bloody character! Walk a life! Learn something!”
Those words have forged a basic outline for my life in art — whether it be acting, writing or directing. With my upcoming project, The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, opening for a six-week double-cast run at the Hudson Mainstage, on January 15 (Red cast) and Jan 16 (Blue cast), I’m directing and thinking again about Mr. Fugard’s words every step of the way.
The process of direction for me with this project is quite simple:Â a) Hire storytellers courageous enough to wholeheartedly walk the life they’re playing, and b) Build the two-and-a-half-hour road they have to walk each night in a way that keeps them hungry and committed to learning something new each night.
Tracey Scott Wilson has written a brilliant play. Set in Birmingham, Alabama 1962 at the birth of the civil rights movement, the play examines the back-room movements of one James Lawrence, a thinly veiled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr type (chosen to lead but flawed), as he wrestles with personal demons (infidelity, self doubt)Â in order to rise and become the man history records. The play takes place at a particularly ugly point on the American timeline of this country — Birmingham 1962 (or Bombingham as it was known for all the KKK bombing activity going going on a the time).
Sam Nickens, our producer, is 88 years old and from Selma, Alabama. He remembers the time. He remembers the Klan, the FBI wiretaps, the international attention, the rise of a movement. Sam has required me as director to make sure the audience remembers this time. Working with award-winning set designer Vali Tirsoaga and award-winning lighting designer Joe Morrissey, veteran sound designer Joseph Montiel and star costumer TJ Walker, all hands have come on deck to create a world at the Hudson Mainstage.
The idea to direct the play with two casts evolved from a plan by Sam Nickens to have an A and B cast at the outset — a cast of leads and a cast of understudies. This is an old LA way of protecting the show in case an actor gets sick or books a movie or TV show. Upon reading the script, I couldn’t see how it would be possible to deliberately hire actors who weren’t “all in” — meaning, guaranteed the opportunity to perform given what the play required of them. The writing of the play requires I hire only the most courageous actors I could find.
Using the 1962 march on Birmingham, Ms. Wilson’s play creates a hyper-relevant modern-day discussion of race in America from both a white and black perspective. The perspectives of all nine characters are remarkably clear — obviously based on real people and real stories the writer has compiled either privately or from the record. Actors explore their characters’ often-controversial points of view and speak through a barely-there fourth wall, exploiting a kind of “town hall” format. My goal here is to have the audience feel as though it is a part of an ongoing debate.
I took my time casting, searching not for talent but for rare courage — the willingness to be uncomfortable on their characters’ hero’s journeys; to search themselves and share not only their skills but their real points of view. In casting all 18 actors I sought storytellers who were willing to walk a life.
I’m very pleased with both casts of The Good Negro. Red for fire, blue for deep pain. I expect audiences will find the need to come again and again to see the two very different plays unfold over the six-week run.
The Good Negro, Hudson Mainstage Theater , 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens Tues Jan 15 (Red cast) and Wed Jan 16 (Blue cast), 8 pm. Regular schedule:Â Red cast performs Thu-Fri 8 pm and Sun 7 pm, Blue cast performs Sat 8 pm and Sun 2 pm, through Feb 24.Â Tickets: $25. www. plays411.com/goodnegro. 323-960-7774.
***All The Good Negro production photos by Ian Foxx
Michael Phillip Edwards is an award-winning actor, writer and director of stage and film, most notably known for his one-man play Runt (also a feature film and BBC radio play).Print