Abena Joan Brown, Founder and Producer
ETA Creative Arts Foundation Chicago, Illinois
Curtains Rise in the Ramada at Lake Shore
Afaa M. Weaver
May 20, 2010
I sat on the edge of the bed in my room at the Lake Shore Ramada as I waited for the meeting to begin. My play "Elvira and the Lost Prince" had won the Playwrights Discovery and Development Initiative, or the PDI Award. It was a few months before my 42nd birthday, and I had just had my first professional production a few months earlier in Philadelphia of a full length play of mine, a two act I named "Rosa." It seemed I had officially entered the world of professional theater after six years of trying.
As I sat there peeping out the curtains at the parking lot, I saw two figures walk out of the pages of black theater history, Woodie King and Ron Milner. It was a stunning moment for me. I had read Woodie's well known "Black Drama Anthology" years before, and Ron's play "What the Winesellers Buy" was one of my first theater going experiences. I was dating a woman by the name of "Liz," a lady from East Baltimore, and we drove to Washington to see his play. It was the mid-seventies, and although the sixties theater movement was done in a chronological way it was very alive for me, and now here they were in the flesh, on the parking lot.
We were all brought to Chicago by Abena Joan Brown, founder and producer of ETA theater on the South Side. My play had been chosen with several others to be produced with the help of a grant she secured for the project. The panel of people who presided over the project was a Who's Who of the sixties period of black drama, including Vantile Whitfield, Eleanor Traylor, and Rob Penny. Rob had been one of a group of men who mentored August Wilson when he was just a boy growing up in Pittsburgh without his father. I was a younger member of the PDI group, and although I had my own accomplishments as a poet I saw these people from the pages of history and respected them. I had heard of them when I was working in the factory and writing. I read their work on the evening and night shifts when bosses were not around. The sixties was a beacon for me.
It seemed like theater itself, the moment I saw Woodie and Ron on the parking lot. Later Ron would become my mentor along with Rob Penny, and I would take a place beside them and the other panel of advisors as we chose winners for later rounds in successive years and traveled to Chicago twice or so a year to see these plays staged and discuss in them in the most minute details over the course of long weekends.
PDI is a think tank for black theater. We wanted to formulate a dramaturgy for the future of black theater. Graduate school at Brown was my theoretical experience, and I got my practicum in the production in Philadelphia, which was at Venture theater, and in my long running association with PDI in Chicago.
You have not experienced theater until you watch a director pull a character out of an actor struggling with your words, or until you feel you have to rein in the costume designer who is not to be reined in, or when you and the director are at odds over the fog machine. Better still, you have not experienced theater until you hear the early reviews in the restroom during intermission and return to your seat still loving your play despite the remarks or hating it because people love it for the wrong reasons. You have not experienced theater until you fall for the leading lady. You have to smell the theater. It has to make you ache.
Poets working in theater have their own problems, as Paula Vogel and the late George H. Bass explained to me during my graduate studies. Metaphor is fine, but in playwriting it can become meta-stasis. The play has no motion despite the lovely riffs and runs in the language. Plot becomes a monster guarding the door to your finished play, and when someone like Ms. Brown asks "What is this play about?" your head scratching and staring at the floor will not suffice. You have to have an answer. You have to know.
Theater is a practical application of language to the ethereal end of something that is different each night it is produced. It is a social art, one where community and the attempt to work with other people is not an option. It is the core of the art. It is an art that gauges the health of a culture. A culture without drama is one that will soon segue into acting out instead of the fine art of acting on stage.
Woodie and Ron were kids in New York in the sixties. Ron told me once that they were standing on a corner in the Village with pockets full of money from their work, two young black men, both of them raised in the urban vernacular of Detroit. Woodie worked for a while in Ford Motor Company, and Ron told me his father was an old world hustler much like the main character in his play "What the Winesellers Buy."
We went into our first meeting, and I began two months of weekly commutes from Philadelphia to Chicago as my teaching responsibilities that fall were such that I could leave on Tuesdays. The airplane was truly an airbus, and my director Jaye T. Stewart worked with me and taught me. We rode together in his old BMW to rehearsals. He picked me up in the apartment building where I had a place as part of my residency. It was near Jackson Park, just below Hyde Park.
The curtain rises and it falls. We fade to blackout, and then it starts all over again when someone gets a new script together, goes out to gather a bunch of actors for a script in hand reading, and the drama of a production begins. Something is born.
Theater is life.