“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.

 

Hail Aphrodite:VENUS IN FUR at Common Ground, through V-day

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Love is a many-splendored thing. Mark Filiaci and Meredith Sause in David Ives’ VENUS IN FUR, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Alex Maness.

David Ives’ 2011 play, Venus in Fur, concerns a theatre director looking for an actress to portray a character in a play he’s written, based on the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism is named. This playwright/director, Thomas (Mark Filiaci), has just had a terrible day of unsuccessful auditions for Vanda, the woman who agrees to dominate the play’s male lead (and possibly Thomas’ alter ego), when a woman named Vanda (Meredith Sause) blows in and insists on auditioning.

Got all those layers? Good, because, as the play (and the play within) develops, even more layers appear.

Directed by John Murphy, this American Theatre Practice production at Durham’s Common Ground is a scintillatingly intelligent and suave examination certain power relationships–the dance of desire between dominance and submission, and not just in love and sex. Although (the pleasure of) pain is discussed in the play(s), no actual pain is inflicted onstage or off. There is pleasure only, the pleasure of the smart script and fine, witty acting. This is the best I’ve ever seen Filiaci–the most complete acting–and saucy Meredith Sause is purely a delight, glowing with audacity, sexuality and high-wattage brainpower.

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Who’s zooming who? Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

 

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Playing within the play. Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

If, as I have, you have missed the literate, skilled, chamber theatre of the late, lamented Ghost and Spice group, you will want to catch this performance. Several of the folks involved with this American Theatre Practice production have long ties to G&S and Common Ground, and the general attitude is similar. There’s good, smart design and production, but the emphasis is on the thoughtful interpretation of character, and the overall meanings of the script. This particular production grew from one of the many readings with other actors that John Murphy has hosted at his home for many years, and it is subsidized by a theatre-loving individual, Dr. Michael Feezor.

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Misogyny revenged? Power, gender and “suprasensuality” in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

Murphy is well-known for his many memorable roles in Triangle theaters since 1989; with his seamless direction here he demonstrates that he knows what works onstage from the inside out. The same is true for assistant director Marcia Edmundson, who has lit up so many area productions. They bring their decades of intimate knowledge of theater and theatricality to bear on this very theatrical script, often with delicious, laugh-out-loud results. Of course, Filiaci and Sause are both seasoned practitioners of the art, and toss off all the internal literary and dramatic references with the ease of knowledge, while revolving silkily through their characters’ changes. Both have the ability to stay completely in their story world, although the audience is only a few feet away; and they make the outer shell of the building disappear with their reality on stage. They are greatly aided in this by Derrick Ivey’s set and costuming; Chuck Catotti’s excellent lighting; and Kit Weinert’s moody sound design.

Venus in Fur continues at Common Ground Feb. 5-7, and Feb. 11-14. Tickets here.

Highly recommended.

 

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