A Collective History

by Matt Cowley
from the School of Theatre & Dance of The University of South Florida in Tampa, FL
Volume II. Jan-Feb 2012

I met with Fanni Green recently at The Bricks, a restaurant with red brick walls and skater-influenced art in Ybor City, a neighborhood in Tampa once home to several immigrant communities and many cigar factories.  We talked about the next step(s) in the development process of The Road Weeps, and that at this point in the process we are faced mainly with questions.

She shared with me a book Alvon Griffin gave her: Black Indian Slave Narratives by Patrick Minges. (Alvon, as we mentioned in the first chronicle, hosts the Two Worlds show at WMNF.)  The book is a collection of stories gathered by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s from former slaves. (We’re planning to record a few of them for inclusion in these chronicles.) We read from the introduction, in which Minges discusses how far the reality of slavery was from the commonly-held view, and that the experience of Native Americans and African Americans was more similar and more intertwined than is commonly known, given that some Native Americans owned slaves and some were slaves themselves. One phrase in particular spoke to Fanni – collective history. We talked about what that meant in terms of the play: the history of the community is in part the history of Trowbridge and Number Two; their history is told by Horse Power, who is both Native and African American. Would Trowbridge and Number Two, as full-bloods, tell their history in the same way? Would they even tell the same history? Is it possible to have a collective history of a community, when there’s more than one person telling it?

Fanni said her first path into directing a play is the music. One area of interest to us is the way Black gospel music and Native American traditional music have intertwined through these combined communities. In the play, there are characters who sing gospel songs and some who sing and/or dance Native songs; we wondered if those meant the same to each of the singers – are they singing the same thing with different words? Is their relationship to their songs the same?

We talked about what the themes of the play are – migration, family, identity, love, community, what else? – and wondered what the primary theme is. One thought is love – the play opens and closes with Number Two and Trowbridge together, and the actions in the play come from the dynamics of their relationship. It’s in some ways a Montague and Capulet story – how would the structure and meaning of the story be different if it were Irish and Italians in New York? Once we find the primary theme, the next question is: what is the question the play is asking, and/or what statement is the play making?

There are other questions to solve as we go. For instance, would M Gene (or any woman) be so undone by a single instance of her husband putting her down that she would give herself to the Creeks, with the implicit understanding that she’d be basically a slave to them?

We talked about the challenges of producing a play with ambitious and poetic stage directions. We’re looking at producing a radio version of the play in the spring, as part of a live radio theater project I work with (a collaboration between WMNF Community Radio and The Studio@620), and talked about what we can do to keep the story clear with no visuals, for such a visual play. The language of the play is what we think will make it work on radio – the sound of dialogue like “Watchin them ride was like watchin fire chase lamp oil”.

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