Saturday 20 February 2016

Meeting Douglas Turner Ward

 Today I met a hero of mine.

That is a nice sentence to write.

I had the great pleasure of meeting playwright Douglas Turner Ward in New York City today.  He wrote one of my favourite and life-shaping plays. His play, Day of Absence, has had a great influence on me as a theatre maker and social activist.

I first read this play at University and I discovered with this play theatre can channel anger into artistic practice.  I found this play unnerving, shocking and upending.  I didn't know what was going on as it was a world that I didn't recognize and it began with the 'Notes on Production:  'Play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face....'

' A reverse minstrel show..... done in whiteface.'

Outstanding. Outrageous.  Wonderful.

After university, I directed this play in Chicago at the Bailwick Theatre.  I can safely say that it did not live up to his standards, but, artistically, I greatly enjoyed working on it.  And I always returned to it over the next 20 years whenever the fire in my belly was waning.

Last year with the Brexit debate heating up, I heard an interview on the BBC with a man who was all for closing the UK down for anyone who is not 'British.'  He uttered the phrase, 'Send them all back..... Just send them all back.'

My first thought upon hearing this interview was, 'Ah, that is a great title for a play, Send Them All Back.    And my second thought was what would happen if, indeed, anyone who didn't have a UK passport [myself included] was indeed 'sent back'.  

And once again, my mind returned to Ward's Day of Absence.  In Ward's play, set in a small southern town in the United States in the 1960's, all of the African American characters 'disappear' for a day. At first, the other characters in the play [performed as we know by 'Negro cast ... in white-face.'] celebrate this fact that they have disappeared.  But then the town falters and tears itself apart because there is no one in the town who knows how to take care of their babies or the factories have to shut down because there are no workers and with the 'absence of handymen, porters, sweepers, stock-movers, deliverers and
miscellaneous dirty-work doers is disrupting the smooth harmony of marketing!' and '
Food poisoning, severe indigestitis, chronic diarrhea, advanced diaper chafings and a
plethora of unsanitary household disasters dangerous to life, limb and property ... unless the trend is reversed, a complete breakdown in family unity is imminent'!

As many Europeans tend to fill the jobs that the British tend not to want to do, I envisioned  an equally disastrous 'complete breakdown' of the British society without the Poles, Czechs, Romanians, and others filling in as fruit pickers and other seasonal workers:  what would happen to this country?

So, I set out [along with a proper playwright, Peter Norgate] to adapt Ward's brilliant play into one that examines a similarity to the UK's situation in 2016.  

Which leads me to my meeting today.  I wanted to speak with him and ask permission to adapt his play with his full credit in the script.  And it really is just a great reason to ask to meet your hero.

 So, read Day of Absence. Know this playwright.


I can only hope that my & Peter's play,  Send Them All Back, can come somewhere close to channelling its anger and wonder of Day of Absence in the future. And let's all hope, it never comes to this.