“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.

 

REDBIRD Festival, Part Two

Jade Arnold as Abraham Galloway, in Howard L. Craft's The Fire of Freedom at the REDBIRD new play festival. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Jade Arnold as Abraham Galloway, in Howard L. Craft’s The Fire of Freedom at the REDBIRD new play festival. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

From my review published on http://www.cvnc.org with the title “Redbird’s Second Program Features Hot New Play By Howard Craft”

Part Two of the Carrboro ArtsCenter’s thrilling REDBIRD Festival of New One-Act Plays by North Carolina Playwrights had its first performance the evening of March 14, with the remaining two out of the five plays presented. The glory of the program came in the second play, a very new work by Howard L. Craft. Inspired by wonderful historian David S. Cecelski’s book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves Civil War (UNC Press), Craft’s one-actor play proves (again) that a monologue, in the right hands, can be supremely dramatic….

Jade Arnold is an extremely charismatic actor, with powerful vocal skills, explosive physicality and breathtaking timing, making his embodiment of Galloway as compelling as Craft’s words. In a hidden attic, in New Bern, in 1863, Galloway has come to speak from his own observations and experiences to a crowd of black men about whether to take up with the Union Army; about what and who can be trusted and why, distinguishing incisively between the cause of the Union and the cause of Freedom. A representative from President Lincoln is to follow him, and Galloway is making sure the men understand that they are in a position to bargain and require, before committing themselves to the army. “I am not asking you to trust his words, but there are things that you can and must trust. Trust in a thing to be true to its nature. The nature of a bullfrog is to leap. The nature of an Army is to kill. The slave will not be free without much killing.”

READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE.

The REDBIRD Flies Tonight from the ArtsCenter Stage

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Two years ago, Dorrie Casey, who’s done pretty much everything else in theatre, decided her next adventure would be a festival of new plays. Add producer to her credits, please, because starting tonight, five new plays by North Carolinians will debut at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Heavily underwritten by Casey and produced by her and Jeri Lynn Schulke, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, REDBIRD promises to be as showy as its name, with the five works premiering over two opening nights. It’s a significant milestone for non-university theatre here.

Tonight’s first first night will include Michael A. Smith’s adaptation of Nancy Peacock‘s first novel, Life Without Water. Peacock is my contemporary (Chapel Hill High School Class of 1972) and the world she imagined in her book resonated strongly with me–and with Tom Marriott, who directs. He too has lived without water. “The play is very, very moving for me,” he said, “and to have Marcia Edmundson and Jane Allen Wilson—!” Here he threw up his hands and grinned with the delight of working with these two splendid women. Marriott’s been making theatre in the Triangle area since 1969, “poor theatre,” as he says, and has been a crucial instigator in the birth and growth of the “not-PlayMakers theatre scene” currently thriving here. This is an ideal situation for the birth of a new play: everyone involved knows everyone else’s art and can also bring intensely local knowledge to this work. The newest member of the team is Joseph Amodei, who’s doing the multimedia. The photographer Catharine Carter is another longtime Chatham County person, and for the backdrop imagery she has photographed the house Nancy Peacock lived in back in the day.

Also on tonight’s bill is the ineffable Jane Holding, who has adapted a story from her friend Allan Gurganus’s recent Local Souls. Holding and Gurganus have been friends since 1969, and share similar eastern North Carolina backgrounds. Part of their friendship involves reading to each other, so Holding knew Gurganus’ characters and their stories long before the book was published, and knows their language and their rhythms deep in her soul (Holding collaborated with Gurganus on the stage adaptation of his Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Holding will embody Jean, mother of Caitlin, for whom Jean put herself in the background. But in Saints Have Mothers,  Jean’s back up front. Holding has told me that this story was important to her, as “more than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.” The insightful Tamara Kissane directs. Of course, Holding and Kissane have previous theatre connections, too–Kissane played Holding’s daughter in Little Green Pig’s fantastic all-female Richie.

Just to prove that ALL the excellent writers in the state do not live in the Triangle, Greensboro will be well-represented in the third piece on tonight’s bill, Linnaeus Forgets. The short story’s by my hero Fred Chappell; the adaptation by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke. Lenore Field, Greg Hohn, who also directs, and the indefatigueable Tom Marriott will act (and waltz), and Jimmy Magoo will handle the puppets.

On the 14th, the second opening night will feature another new work by Howard L. Craft, whose Freight was such a smashing success in January (it will receive a New York production this summer). Craft has adapted from historian David Cecelski’s book for The Fire of Freedom, and the character Abraham Galloway will be played by Jade Arnold. Chaunesti Webb directs.

The REDBIRD’S fifth work is Property, by Dana Coen, director of the UNC-CH Writing for the Stage and Screen program, and examines outsiders’ and locals’ relationships with the land and “sustainability.” Coen directs Alex Thompson, Melanie Rio and Brandon Rafalson.

REDBIRD has a design team, too, studded with well-known local names. The whole damn shebang is stage-managed by the amazing Emma Nadeau. “She’s the hub of the spinning wheel,” said Jeri Lynn Schulke. Maybe if we stomp our feet, she’ll come out at the end with her accordion.

REDBIRD runs two weekends only! with the shows in rolling repertory. Check http://www.artscenterlive.org for which is when, and get your tickets.

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