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Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about ‘Pig’

There are two more opportunities to see Fresno State’s “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” which plays through Saturday night at the Woods Theatre. I chatted via email earlier with director Thomas-Whit Ellis, who offers his insights on this drama.

Question: Give us a brief snyopsis of the show.

Answer: Against a backdrop of social/political uncertainties and the promise of change with the dawning of the civil rights movement, mother and daughter attempt to etch out a decent life as domestics in 1950′s Chicago. A 30ish Alberta finds her life upended when a suitor, Blind Jordan stumbles into that life. Though he presents the potential for romance and happiness his presence proves disruptive to her elderly mother and uncle.

What can you tell me about the play’s production history?

The play ran on Broadway in the early 70′s to very good reviews. Soon thereafter, it was produced at my Alma Mater, CSU Sacramento. Through some serendipitous events I ended up cast in a small part (that’s listed as the voice of Rev. Goodlow). The director at that time decided to create an actual, live character and choir as opposed to the recorded voices during Alberta’s flashback of the funeral of her friend Emanuel Fisher. This was my first foray in the theatre. The production ended up as a Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival finalist.

How about the playwright, Phillip Hayes Dean?

This production of Sty was the first black theatre event at the Kennedy Center. Dean was so taken by this news, he traveled to DC to view the play. After one of the performances, he held a lengthy discussion with the cast and director about it’s genesis, comparisons to the Negro Ensemble Production in New York and other information.

He is also known for another play, “Robeson,” a solo show about Paul Robeson. This play also ran on Broadway in the late 70′s with James Earl Jones. Avery Brooks eventually took over the role and continues to tour it around the country primarily during Black History Month.

For many people alive today, and especially your students, the 1950s are near history. Do you consider this a period piece? What are the differences between directing a play set in the recent past compared to one set, say, 100 years ago?

Yes, definitely a period piece. I’ve been pretty much addicted to plays drawn from historical eras for a couple of reasons. First, as a teaching tool illuminating African American history, which is a fundamental part of the college experience. Second, it offers more challenges in directing and introducing heirs to Martin Luther King’s vision of integration who through that experience become less and less aware of these histories, cultural traits, beliefs and customs. These challenges include working on period accents, mannerisms and traditions. Keep in mind, people living in the 50′s often knew people that were former slaves. I find these connections fascinating and well suited to our artistic mission. In a way, it’s like introducing students to a history that is only experienced through film and TV.

What kind of discussions have you had with your cast about the civil rights movement?

Actually, not as much as with other plays such as “Soldiers Play.” As a practical matter, a lot more time has been devoted to continued work with period movement and dialect.

In a recent New York Times review of the play, the critic wrote, “There have not been many stories, at least from this perspective, of black people who were more comfortable with the old ways than with fighting the civil rights battle. But here they are.” Do you agree with that? What is your perspective on this theme?

My personal observations from living some years in Georgia (teaching at UGA) was that in many cases, specifically those working as staff for the university were weary of faculty attempts to include them in unifying and speaking for them in collective bargaining situations. They were paid very little, mostly involved in menial jobs, but resisted the idea of us going to bat form them in any way. The general sense was that they did not want faculty to jeopardize these positions and viewed us as semi carpetbagger for lack of a better term. They were mostly older and had held these kinds of jobs since before the civil rights movement and seemed quietly OK with the status quo. On the other hand, African American students, professionals and others were all actively involved with change and upward mobility at any cost. This reflects Weedy and her brother’s position of viewing these changes with some derision and fear.

Is your cast a mix of students and community members?

All students and one CSUF staff person. Dr. Francine Oputa, director of the Women’s Resources Center. She is also a performer and gifted actress. We’re also using a few community people in the choir.

What do you consider to be the play’s most important themes?

It casts an interesting view on the notion of transition from one era of African American life to another.

 

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