“One Woman Plus a Typewriter Equals a Movement:” Pauli Murray Still Inspires

Pauli Murray’s immortal spirit is reembodied in TO BUY THE SUN, a remarkably dramatic piece of documentary theatre that played in Chapel Hill and Durham in late 2016, in a new and improved version of the original 2010 production. Six weeks later, I’m still thinking about the performance I saw at the Lyon Park Community Center, in Pauli Murray’s old Durham neighborhood (where her childhood home was recently named a National Historic Landmark; it also received a National Park Service grant for interior renovations). I see a lot of plays and generally mull them over for a week or two, but this one insinuated itself more deeply. In the tradition of the very best biographies, it throws light, but not heat, on a wide swath of history through the telling of an individual life.

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Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray in TO BUY THE SUN, December, 2016. Photo courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Commissioned by the Pauli Murray Project (led by Barbara Lau, as part of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute) from Hidden Voices, with support from the City of Durham and the Episcopal Church, TO BUY THE SUN was written by Hidden Voices founder Lynden Harris, in collaboration with her parter in progressive action, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who directed both the original and the recent production.

Their brief was simple, if nearly impossible: make a play of a reasonable length that will appeal to a broad range of viewers, about Pauli Murray’s whole life. 1910-1985. Her ancestry was a tangle of pride and shame; her early life was crosshatched with sorrows; her adult life was filled with struggles and accomplishments so gargantuan that they almost obscure the woman. Rejected by the University of North Carolina for her race, and by Columbia University for her sex, Murray attended Hunter College, then Howard University Law School, where she graduated first in her class. Harvard rejected her application for master’s work on the basis of her sex, so she took that degree at UC-Berkeley, and joined the Bar in California, where she soon became the state’s first African-American deputy attorney general (breaking the path for California’s new junior Senator, Kamala Harris). Murray went on become the first African-American to earn a doctorate of law from Yale and later, the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Along in there she became a friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, and a co-founder of the National Organization of Women. Although she did pioneering work against sex discrimination, she did not live long enough to marry any of the women she loved.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Murray herself told some of her story in her autobiographical book Proud Shoes, and the posthumously published Song in a Weary Throat (Wikipedia has an excellent, well-notated overview of Murray’s life; for a detailed look at one of the slave-owning, slave-raping branches of her family, see Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, by H.G. Jones and David Southern, McFarland & Company, 2015) but clearly there was more behind those books, the extant poetry, and Murray’s sermons.

Script writer Lynden Harris went to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where Murray had placed her archives, and read up all her journals and papers. But Murray had often used initials instead of names, and had later excised portions, so it was often difficult to know what Murray had been writing about. So Harris then went to the archives of the Black press of the time, where she found much, much more–more information, and a viable design scheme for a bare-bones theater production. The team would go on to use a tapestry of collages and projections of the news articles and photographs as an ever-changing backdrop for the complex story.

TO BUY THE SUN takes place on the night of February 12, 1977, in the old family home at 906 Carroll Street in Durham’s West End, as Pauli Murray prepares for her first service of the Holy Eucharist as priest. She will raise high the bread and wine in the very chapel–The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill–where her own enslaved grandmother was baptized. The ghosts are all around her. As she works on her sermon, they speak, from every stage of her life journey, and as always, Pauli speaks back. Not always fearlessly, but through the fears, distilling a life of pain and activist struggle into her great message: Peace, love, respect for everybody (as the revered Dr. Chuck Davis has also taught us to say). It is quite a writerly feat by Lynden Harris to keep Pauli Murray the woman alive in this nexus of history and struggle, and to always keep the audience seeing her life from her point of view–yet at the same time allow us to see her a symbol of the possible.

The original production of TO BUY THE SUN used only two actors for the many roles, and that was a bit awkward–the stage dynamics were too limited. “A couple of years ago,” Lynden Harris told me, “Kathy [Kathryn Hunter-Williams] said, ‘when we do this again, I want to have three people, I want a guy up there.’ And I said, that would be fine with me as long they didn’t play to gender and race. They had to play across that.”

This meant some arduous re-writing by Harris, for which no one was paying, but the result is brilliant and highly dynamic. And extremely informative, distressingly poignant, and powerfully motivating. The script is excellent and the direction acute, but the blazing success of the production in a flat-floored, former elementary school auditorium with almost no technical facilities was partly due to the casting of three of the area’s highly talented actors.

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A woman plus a typewriter. Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray, and Jade Arnold, center, with Meredith Sause, as all the other characters alive in Murray’s memory, in TO BUY THE SUN, by Lynden Harris. Photo courtesy The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Rasool Jahan played Pauli Murray so thoroughly that it was difficult to remember that it was not Murray herself who spoke, while Meredith Sause and Jade Arnold played everyone else, making each character so specific that there was never confusion about who was speaking–including the ghosts. Having a mixed-race cast work through all the explosive racial content, and a mixed-sex cast portray the difficulties of variant sexualities worked very well. Joseph Amodei’s projections were wonderful–but very hard to see because the room could neither be darkened entirely not lit as it should have been.  If ever there was a history play that deserves to be given a fully supported production, this is it. Everything Pauli Murray lived and fought for is in jeopardy: We need this story told again and again. Harris tells me that there is considerable interest in touring and/or restaging TO BUY THE SUN from theaters and institutions around the state and the southeast. If it pops up near you, do not miss it.


Another piece of extraordinary documentary work, this one in film, is beginning to make the rounds. Cassilhaus recently had a special showing of OLYMPIC PRIDE-AMERICAN PREJUDICE. Researched, written and directed by Deborah Riley Draper, with executive production by Chatham County’s Amy Tiemann of Spark Productions, the film tells the story of ALL EIGHTEEN of the African-American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whoa! Who knew Jesse Owens was not the only one?

A staggering amount of research was required for this film, and the trove of materials found makes it visually rich, in the key of irony. Much of the archival film was shot by Hitler’s gal Leni Riefenstahl and her team to help prove Aryan supremacy–but the cameras caught the athletic achievements that won medal after medal for the Black members of Team USA. But the film’s greatness lies in its probing not only of the before and during, but also what happened after the Olympics. Some of it is heartbreaking; altogether it is a salutary reminder that we must continually assert our knowledge of history that we may always deny the veracity of “alternate facts.”

Look for this film –I think it will start appearing in local non-theatrical venues soon. The makers also have a Facebook presence, and you can go to tugg.com to explore single-screening rentals or educational licensing.

 

ADF @ The Nasher: Mark Haim

This Land Is Your Land, repeats tonight only

The American Dance Festival and the Nasher Museum of Art are doing an extremely cool thing, co-presenting an unusual dance by Mark Haim in the museum’s atrium. There were two shows of This Land Is Your Land on the 25th, and there will be two more tonight, June 26. After that you will have missed your chance to see something surprising, life-affirming and–yes–cheerful.

Mark Haim, from Seattle, has been teaching in the ADF School for years (and has been an artist-in-residence at Durham’s Cassilhaus), and has a long, impressive roster of work to his credit. He is one of the 14 (Seattle-based) performers who walk, skip and turn before a striped backdrop, moving unceasingly through a series of permutations and modulated repetitions that would make Philip Glass goggle. Although the sound was a mix of country and western songs, old and new, I felt as if I were seeing music being made in the minimalist style of Glass or Reich. It was a fantastic feeling.

From Mark Haim's THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. Photo: Tim Summers.

From Mark Haim’s THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. Photo: Tim Summers.

The 50 minute piece has to do with contemporary city life, its river-like qualities of homogeneity and sparkling difference. The dancers appear from one side of the striped curtain, walk the line outward, turn and reverse, taking up the next position on the return, when at the same time the outermost dancer exits past the trash can, tossing in the Starbucks cup, beer can or drink cup with which each is supplied nearly all the time. They do not interact at all until very near the end, but, like fish in a river, they move near and past each other. As the dancers cycle out of our sight, they change something–cup, cap, shirt, shoes, phone, gun, etc., and the movements and tempo in the walking alter slightly with each change. It is pretty brilliant. And not even the tiniest bit self-indulgent or self-absorbed. The end could be stronger, and for some reason the last song is “Great Speckled Bird,” not “This Land Is Your Land,” but those are quibbles. This is a portrait of America that makes the bleak failings absurd, and the bright strengths joyous. We just need to keep on walking, and changing in a rainbow world.

The Nasher is small venue. There is a very limited number of chairs, and limited sitting/standing room beyond them. If you want to go, which you do, calling ahead for a ticket and getting there early are both advisable.

Warding off forgetting: Photographer Deborah Luster at the Cassilhaus salon

Some people just start right out with the correct name. Deborah Luster, for instance. Luster, a photographer who works in black and white, makes pictures so luminous they probably glow in the dark. Now nationally and internationally acclaimed, and the winner of many grants and prizes, she lives in New Orleans and Galway, Ireland. Although I’d admired her work for years, I’d never met her until her June 10th artist talk at Cassilhaus, where she is the current artist-in-residence.

At Cassilhaus after the Deborah Luster talk. Photo by Frank Konhaus. Left to right, Kate Dobbs Ariail, photographer MJ Sharp, and Emily Kass, director of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. Patrick Dougherty sculpture on the landing, at left.

It turns out that Luster is from Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was born, and hearing that hardscrabble accent as she talked about her family and background in photography was such a pleasure to me, even though she was speaking about some very tough stuff.  You can  hear her voice, recorded for an NPR interview in 2010, and see some images from her haunting portrait work done in three of Louisiana’s many prisons, here. She’s represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, and more recent images–a long series in circular format of murder sites in New Orleans–are available to view on the gallery’s site.

Luster is the most recent in the series of artists-in-residence at the extraordinary Cassilhaus, the home of architect Ellen Cassilly and entrepreneur/photography collector Frank Konhaus. They designed their home to include an apartment-studio for artists they would invite to stay a few weeks or even months. (This New York Times feature from 2009 includes a good slide show.) Generally, the artist’s residence culminates with an exhibition in the gallery connecting the two sides of the house, and often there will be an artist talk or reception as well. It’s an inspired form of artistic patronage, and the events call to mind descriptions of the great Parisian intellectual salons, where a variety of creative people fill the air with something more than idle chat.

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