In Friday’s 7 section, I talk with Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of the new Fresno State production of “The First Breeze of Summer.” Here’s the extended version of that interview.
What is the play about?
The play focuses on two stories. Story A takes place in the early 20′s and deals with the life of Lucretia, a young, attractive, black domestic struggling to find her place in the world and a fitful love life. She falls in love with and trusts 3 different guys who clearly take advantage of her, each leaving her with a child. One of which, a rich, white guy who presents the kind of schizophrenic, love/hate view of blacks as the late Strom Thurmond, who fought against civil rights but fathered a child with a black mistress. Ironically, her young life takes place in the same region as Thurmond’s constituency.
Story B takes place some decades later where we see a senior Lucretia (Gremmar) living with one of her grown children, and forming a strong bond with her grandson, a sensitive and frustrated adolescent who thinks the world of her and her commitment to her faith. Things go awry when he stumbles upon her past, these lovers and what he views as sordid, sinful liaisons.
Why did you select it?
As you know, my role here is to expose our community to a variety of African American dramatic perspectives. Clearly, there is a tangible dearth of this sort of material coming from the bulk of our local theatre scene. This is not so much a complaint as an acknowledgement of the conservative politics and social norms of the central valley as shown through major arts presenters. But America’s major media hubs and the bulk of African American literature tends to further an evolving discourse on America’s unresolved racial quagmire. I tend to favor this discourse through the lens of past mores and customs, which seem to give the viewer a heightened awareness of the same problems that persist today.
And there is the matter of some of my non black majors that seek to work with me as a director and our examination of these issues. Plays like this seem to offer some solutions to my mission and allow the department to further its goal of involving a more diverse theatrical theme.
The play was revived five years ago by the Signature Theatre Company. Do you know if there were any significant changes between that production and the 1975 original? When you revive a show like this, do you confine your attention to the original script and production, or do you take into account New York revivals?
Excellent question. Based on the reviews and video clip of the Signature’s production, it appears to pretty much based on the original script. Mine follows this pattern. There’s no reason to try to update any of the motifs involved. It’s quite deliberately presented as a period piece. This provides a broader learning experience for the students. It very curious to see them react to customs and idioms from the 20′s and 70′s. My experience has shown that they seem to understand these differences but only on the surface. When presented a deeper examination of these customs they are pretty awestruck. Also, by way of popular TV series like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, black life is glimpsed and exposed in a fascinating way. And more importantly, it is presented to a largely white audience. This play furthers that examination.
You and I have talked before about period plays and how they fit into the African-American theater oeuvre. The last play you did at Fresno State, “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” was set in the 1950s. “First Breeze” is set in the 1970s. How do the two compare in terms of style and manner? Which era is more challenging to capture?
I’ve noticed the theatre world’s hyping up the notion of “cycle plays” as a popular genre. This includes for example, Horton Foote’s, Orphan’s Home Cycle; Robert Schenkkan’s Kentucky Cycle; all of August Wilson’s work and what the New York theatre circle is calling the “Raisin in the Sun cycle”: Raisin in the Sun, ClybornePark (which we’re doing soon) and Beneatha’s Place. These themes have influenced me in my selection of plays in that they seem to provide a engaging educational experience for our majors and audience. Also, Hollywood, the BBC, and pay-per-view cable are also opening up more and more historic examinations of our society. My choices are a part of this trend.
Religion plays a big role in the play. What can you tell us about that?
This is also a good question. Paul Carter Harrison, considered one of the deans of critical and philosophical thought on black theatre, has put forth the notion that the black church, black theatre and black history are all inner-connected. That the theatricality found in the traditions of the black church act as a precursor to the black theatre experience. And that the church is an indispensable part of the struggle of black America. The civil rights movement started in this church. Many of the traditional black colleges started as a result of American schools banning black students, also came from black churches. Black and white politicians alike, must schedule a tour of these churches in major urban areas to prop up their viability. So it seems an easy fit to stick with this formula. Newer plays that are coming out of this experience to me, seem less firmly rooted in this combination and experience.
The central character in the play, Lucretia, might seem demure in present day, but it turns out she had quite a sensuous past. It can be a shock to discover that one’s parents were, well, sexual beings. Any thoughts?
Yes, and it is this shock that tilts the world of the grandson and dramatically alters the story’s arc. Also, this sort of theme, sexual feelings, confusions and interpersonal expectations is rather popular with a number of black romantic comedies in the film world. But not so much examined in the theatre. By the way this information comes out as a rather tipsy aunt (Lucretia’s other child) accidentally reveals this information during a family gathering. Much like the typical Thanksgiving day rants of a drunken relative revealing the same kind of family secret to unsuspecting kin.
You’ll be presenting “First Breeze” as a staged reading. Why?
Well, this is a practical reaction to a number of budgetary related cutbacks that have hobbled our department. Some support staff positions have been lost, directly impacting the nature of what and how we present our work. This is kind of an experiment to present a show with less stress on our tech departments. The down side which we’re monitoring closely, is the possible impact on our bottom line. Will a staged reading appeal to our paying audience?
As a director it presents a number of challenges which is why I volunteered to pursue this with my choice. What you’ll see is a kind of hybrid, traditional reading-from-scripts for some scenes while other parts, the flashbacks, are presented on their feet and off book.
What are some of the production and dramatic challenges of a staged reading?
Basically negotiating the notion of the “staged reading.” My department is kind of learning as we go in terms of rules, parameters in terms of tech. Some things are mimed some things use minimal prop reinforcement. This is kind of a mandate from the department, but mixing these styles can be misinterpreted as willy nilly and inconsistent. All of which is a headache, but also no different than other challenges rooted in this art form. Also, it tends to mitigate the learning process for beginning actors that tend to develop more aptly during a normal production which employs more of the trappings of the theatre experience.
What do you hope audiences walk away with from this play?
Well, an ongoing dramatic theme presented in most film, TV and stage presentations, is the notion of black resiliency. That blacks have always faced and negotiated a complicated and dangerous life in America, but continue to survive Perhaps not without some negative fallout and dysfunction, but survive nonetheless. Another theme is that Gremmar has managed her life partially though a growing and evolving commitment to her faith. We also see the evolution of black issues and the changing nature of racism vis-vis Gremmar’s young life and present day life.