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Beate Hein Bennett
TELLING TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
"Telling Tales Out of School" by Wesley Brown,directed by Woodie King, Jr.
A Workshop Production May 2 to 7, 2023
Presented by New Federal Theatre, Elizabeth Van Dyke Producing Artistic Director, in association with Castillo Theatre at ASP/Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street.
New Federal Theatre staged "Telling Tales Out of School," a new play by Wesley Brown, directed by Woodie King, Jr., from May 2 to 7, 2023 as a work in progress at Castillo Theatre/ASP, 543 West 42nd Street. The play was a unique take on the Harlem Renaissance, providing a character study of four of the movement's prominent women writers.
The Harlem Renaissance, the fabled literary and artistic movement produced many of the most notable writers of 20th century American literature. It also created a foundation for the following generations of Black writers and artists who were encouraged by, learned from, and fed from the trough of their works. Wesley Brown and Woodie King, Jr., both venerable Black theater veterans, have gathered four actors to portray four of the most notable women from that era: Zora Neale Hurston is portrayed by Elizabeth Van Dyke—she first portrayed her in a solo piece some years ago. Petronia Paley plays the novelist Nella Larsen. Richarda Abrams embodies Jessie Fauset and June Ballinger as the British heiress, writer and activist Nancy Cunard, who supported vigorously the African art movement all her life, complete the ensemble.
The four women meet in June 1954 on the occasion of a memorial service for Alain Locke (1885-1954), the “philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance”, who was one of the most significant African American contributors to the intellectual history of American culture. It is about 20 years after the literary successes of the female “shakers and movers” in that Black movement. They gather in Nancy Cunard’s suite at the Hotel Theresa for a post-memorial drink after a long time of not having seen each other, and, more importantly, after all of them have somewhat receded into the shadows of history. Their lives no longer revolve around the artistic hothouse atmosphere of Harlem. They had been accomplished women in a predominantly male domain of writers and publishers. Each of the three black women started life in very different social circumstances and their lives took them far afield. However, by the mid-1950s the careers of the four women had declined.
Of the three black women writers, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is probably the most familiar today, largely because of the success of her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (19370 which was made into a successful film that brought about a re-discovery of her work. Hurston, born in Alabama, grew up in Eatonville, FL, a small town founded by Blacks for Blacks—it became the setting for many of her novels. However, she made her significant contributions to the ethnographic study of African American and Caribbean culture, first as a student of Alain Locke at Howard University and later with the anthropologist Franz Boas at Barnard College and Columbia University. Supported financially by the philanthropist and literary patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, she traveled to the South and the Caribbean where she collected materials of the music, folklore, and stories from Hoodoo, African and Caribbean culture. This study resulted in many non-fiction and fiction works, among them the remarkable book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” based on her interviews with Cudjoe Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to land in America. He could tell her memories of his childhood in Africa. Hurston had come for the interviews to Africatown, the small community in Alabama founded by the surviving Blacks who had come on the Clotilda as late as the 1870s. The book was not published until 2018—the language was not accepted in her life time -- she had transcribed the interview verbatim in Lewis’s vernacular. In the 20s and 30s her home in Harlem became a hub of the literary scene with many friends, among them Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
Her social network included the women writers Jessie Fauset (1882-1961), then the literary editor of the NCAAP journal “The Crisis”, published by W.B.DuBois, and Nella Larsen (1891-1964), whose popular novels Quicksand and Passing explored racial identity and the experiences of light-skinned African American women. While Jessie Fauset was from the Black middle class in Philadelphia, Nella Larsen was born as the daughter of a mixed marriage between a Danish father and a Jamaican mother. Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) was a significant philanthropist, political activist, living in Paris in the 20s and 30s. She was also a writer and publisher who brought attention to African and African American culture with her book Negro Anthology (1934). Her personality was rather mercurial and eccentric and she supported a five year relationship with Henry Crowder, an African American jazz musician working in Paris where she was also courted by and supported many of the pre-WWII avant-garde artists.
Wesley Brown’s play brings to life these four very different women as they engage each other in a rather bold unmasking of each one’s “vulnerable vulnerabilities” (to use an Alain Locke phrase). His play explores the pitfalls and cliffs each woman had to climb towards literary success. Jessie Fauset’s middle class background and superb education, as well as her assertive role as editor brought her into the limelight of the Harlem Renaissance scene that ended in a losing conflict with W.B.DuBois. She became a teacher of French at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where James Baldwin was among her students. Her works are gradually being rediscovered by scholars and re-published. In the play she becomes the butt of Zora Neale Hurston’s vocal disdain for her middle class propriety in behavior and language. Nella Larsen explored in her works the socio-psychological effects suffered by light-skinned mixed race women. In the play she is a delicate soul who could not stand up to the competition prevailing in the New York literary hothouse and she became a nurse; but she maintains her dignity against the “rassing” and “sassing” by her two Black colleagues. As Nancy Cunard graciously keeps filling the whisky glasses, the women try to unmask her as a rich white interloper in their domain—accusing her of being “color struck”—honing in on her relationship with Henry Crowder. However, she resists humiliation with humor and honesty, revealing herself not as some “poor little rich girl” but as a serious student of African culture in its own right. Wesley Brown raises questions as relevant today as they were for these women: questions of identity, of self-identification, of language as social signifier, of social relationships in a society that is fractured by competition, racism, gender distrust, and political hypocrisy. By setting the play in 1954 when the civil rights movement awakened the country once again to its violent history of unequal opportunity and unequal justice—all of which are present issues—Wesley Brown gives voice to an ongoing history through these specific remarkable women.
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