Saturday, July 26, 2008

Marcus Gardley's "every tongue must confess" at Bay Area Playwrighting Festival 31

Marcus Gardley Play
First Impressions—yes I plan to return August 3 at 4 p.m. at the Magic Theatre in Ft. Mason Center in San Francisco

The play, "every tongue must confess," opens in a church…the congregation, led by a woman, shifts between the heavenly and the profane as stories are bandied about—heat an ever present theme. I could certainly relate to the heat metaphor just returning from Mississippi where daily the temperature was 92 degrees. Learning to walk on water was my survival technique—otherwise I would have drowned.

At first I was confused by the multiple images—church benches and interlocking stories of mistaken identity, murder, and grace or its absence. Certainly there were consequences for evil, even evil misguided. A son denies his father and lives while his father is killed, his soul haunting the earth as he searches for his child, and a girl child—Benny, named after her grandfather, who stops speaking after her mother is almost kills.

Both father and daughter, who have never met share guilt, the guilt of speaking or holding one’s tongue—the difference is subtle, yet consequences are shame.

I am reminded throughout the play of May Angelous’ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In her autobiography, Margarite (young Maya) is struck mute when she tells who raped her and the man is found and killed. She realizes that words are powerful and that telling has consequences and she doesn’t want her words to be used to take life, so she writes and reads and stops speaking until she meets a teacher who helps her unlock her tongue.

It’s the same with Benny Pride (actress Rebecca White). She says a bird took her voice. Humm...bird imagery. Spirit often takes the form of birds. The reverend tells her that the bird doesn’t know what to do with the girl’s voice, that the burden of carrying the child’s voice is keeping her from being able to sing her own song. To take it back, and Benny does.

The child freezes up again when her dad…starts to speak, this stranger whom has so much in common with her. Pain and loss and hurt and guilt. It’s what he does with it-the shame, that differs from his daughter's choice.

Then there is the road Jeremiah (actor Robert Hampton) has paved, the bible he finds in a grave and a red string—there are four pieces of red string that tie the ends together-the ends of the story together. "The narrator" or lead "chorus director", actor, Myers Clark plays and "Sophia," "the Holy Ghost," and "reporter," actress Pjay Phillips plays, which help us stay on track...sort of, as the tale dips and turns as only a Marcus Gardley pen can imagine. Bravo!

It’s interesting…I don’t understand it all, but I roll with it. I trust the journey and know from literary experience (with Gardley) I will understand everything in the sweet bye and bye. And if I don't, I can ask questions. This is an opening reception perk, which I highly recommend. I recommend all opportunities to talk to the playwrights and cast. BAPF offers many such opportunities. (I wish the venue was a little closer to BART though. I like The Marsh for this reason, even though I understand the sentimental value of The Magic. Driving and parking is such an expense and a drag I am trying to overcome :-)

I learn later about Jeremiah and why he wants the pastor to lay hands on him. In the bible Jeremiah suffers for god. He paves a road past Bennie and her dad’s place. Benny’s dad, Stoker Pride (actor Michael Oakes) tells him to stop, but he ignores him. He tries to keep her from attending a black church up the road, she ignores him. The pastor frees her voice, just as Jeremiah frees her dad.

Jeremiah reads the bible. Later on we find out why he has to die.

Okay so I’m thinking the play is about church burnings in Alabama, when in fact the murder mystery is about these interlocking relationships and secrets and gossip and the truth in these stories which are somewhat biblical.

I met a woman in Algiers whose work was teaching others to use the bible as a guide to teach them how to live their daily lives. Marcus captures this concept in his play…Jeremiah is real, as is a man they call Blacksmith (actor Mujahid Abdul-Rashid). He lost his true name and can’t recall his son’s name, but he’s looking for his family. He had an accident, a fall and is bleeding when he shows up on the pastor’s step (actress C. Kelly Wright), sits uninvited at the table and begins to eat the food, complaining all the time.

The pastor, Mother Sister Madkins, a prophet and a healer, is bitter because she couldn’t save her husband—guilt. Guilt is a theme here. Good people who just don’t have to capacity to save the one’s they love. It’s like those who devote their lives to the world forget those at home—this is not the case with the pastor. She loves her son Shadrach, she just ignores him and what he wants until Blacksmith comes.

So here’s this stranger come to town who has the pastor speaking in tongues and the tongues of the congregation wagging.

The heat is not just the weather. The day is hot…but there is passion and also real danger. Someone is burning down churches and soon we find out who this is.

Jeremiah paves the road and then is killed—his death a beautiful dance. The actors are superb but the incineration of this humble man. I believe he was 82 or so, is horrible and horrifying and beautifully rendered. In the absence of smoke and trees and a visual landscape, he dances like the ashes floating into the air—the crackling flesh—the pain and agony a silent pantomime.

I don’t know how it will appear when the play is produced, but I’d never seen anyone die like this before—I called out to a friend at intermission—he’s being lynched. I nudged my friend as I watched in horror as he was set on fire—he’s being lynched. I don’t know what I expected—someone to run on stage and stop it, put out the fire. No one moved. And it took so long for him to dies too. when we watch lynchings on TV we just see the end…the popcorn bags, the retreating mob, the charred remains, not the actual event.

It takes a long time for a human being to burn, a long time. The actor captures this, he also captures the fascination the horrible images can evoke. I could see why people would take photos to send to friends, why people would watch, why people would stay and look—sickened yet transfixed.

Shadrach (actor Roy Ellis) was another character I had to find out more about afterwards. I knew he was important to the play, but I didn’t remember the story. I asked Kelly, the pastor, afterwards and she told me about Shadrach and his two brothers who were put in a fiery furnace and God saved them from it.

I was like, oh, so his presence guaranteed the congregation’s safety when the arsonist set fire to the church with people in it.

I’d neve heard of churches burned while occupied; I liked Gardley’s introduction of this twist. I also liked the way, by the time the church was burning through the interlocking stories, we had a personal relationship to the principles involved: Bennie, her mom in a coma, her dad, the pastor, Jeremiah, the grave digger and road paver, Shadrach and the stranger named Blacksmith who fixed stairs—repaired things.

Oh, I also wanted to mention that this play was about legacy—what we give our children, what we want them to have and what they end up keeping. Sometimes what they keep is what they should discard. Benny’s mom, Bernadette, (actress Julia McNeal) in a coma haunts the space her daughter occupies. She can’t rest until she knows her child is all right. This is so African a concept. This is why we don’t call on the recently departed because they are making their ascent and if we call them –if we pour libations for them –the invocation causes them to tarry. In this case, though, the mother is on life support and her spirit wanders freely…she knows her daughter and wants to relieve her conscience. What she doesn’t know is her husband.

I love the earlier conversation between the two before she is shot by her black boy friend. I was so happy the story wasn’t going to be a typical interracial tale, that appearances were deceptive. I wonder how much the mother knew about her child’s dad.

The language was rich and the layers of story and symbols and imagery are so fantastic…oh my goodness. I just loved it. I guess following an evening featuring the work of three playwrights: Gertrude Stein, Suzan-Lori Parks and Eugenie Chan in Avant GardARAMA! at Cutting Ball theatre, directed by Rob Melrose, kind of prepared the way for my instant immersion in this world…one where clarity is not easy when perspiration is dripping down one’s brow into one’s eyes. Again, I carried a towel in my purse. Tissue was useless.

I’m still trying to get used to this cool –read “cold,” California weather.
Just the evening before when I learned a now way to engage text…well it wasn’t new, I do it all the time with poetry, but one doesn’t turn off the analytical as quickly when in the theatre. I stopped looking for meaning and just let the words do what they wanted. The images helped at Avant GardARAMA! I don’t remember the art in Gardley’s play. I usually do, but I was so captivated by the characters and the actors embodying them to notice—really notice.

It was pedestrian. I was so into my head making images, seeing roads and red string in Bennie’s hair, birds snatching voices, the lame walk, ghosts and burning churches—consumption, crosses and more death—even walkman’s. The other “real” scenery or images just didn’t compute. How it all fit together was a place I didn’t have time to go because I was having enough trouble following the red thread and I didn’t want to get lost.

Threads and spoons, the notion that in the country there could be a girl who refuses to eat anything with eyes; a boy who cooks for his mother, and the concept of laying on hands…a third eye that sleeps after dark, bigots and racists, and the question: why is the object of our disdain or hatred, most often ourselves?

I also saw elements or influences of James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time and because Kelly and Mujahid were in the cast, in was reminded of Amen Corner, where Mujahid played the errant husband returned home to die. Here again Blacksmith returned home to die. Kelly was the angry woman, a woman robbed of an opportunity to be with the one she loved. Gardley's names for his central characters--"Pride" and "Madkins" make a lot more sense once the play is over and one thinks about the journey. Pride definitely was the reason for Stoker's fall and Mother Sister was certainly angry at God, while again Pride was angry at his father and Benny was angry at her kinfolk too, her mom for her naivete and her mom's boyfriend, and her dad.

Marcus Gardley’s “Every Tongue Must Confess’” takes us on a journey to explore this issue. I think this was the first play I’d seen of his set outside Oakland, and I loved it. I loved the way the director and dramaturg worked with the language to bring out the inherent imagery in the work, minus props which would have clarified so much and made our work as audience so much easier. But I liked working for my supper or dessert or good time. I will feel so vindicated with I see the play produced and can just sit back and allow the images to cascade of me. I don’t think I have ever seen a Gardley play in full production and I know there has been at least one produced in the Bay Area. I am not on the A list—boo hoo hoo.

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