By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant
When states adopted Jim Crow laws decades after the Civil War, many southern black families moved to Chicago and other northern cities to escape violence and to seek a better life in what is now called “The Great Migration.” Over a hundred years later we know that that movement from south to north was not a compete exodus- the bondage of African-Americans and the insidious persecution that followed plays out in ways that affect every American.
Gail Parrish understands these patterns all too well. For over 30 years she worked to tear down the walls that divide us by race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation as she helmed organizations that promote dialogue and offer the potential for positive change.
We are thrilled to bring Gail Parrish’s play, Leavings, to life as part of the Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays (July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center). Leavings is more than a play which addresses the stranglehold of racism- a grip that reaches even those among us who like to think that we “do not see race.” It’s a haunting and ambitious piece spanning generations, tackling politics and family with humor and grace. Gail has given us a play that we are proud to present in this year’s festival and we are excited that she has agreed to share her wisdom:
AA: What started you on the path to being a writer?
GP: Writing has always been the way I express myself most naturally. I started writing plays as an undergraduate at Howard University when I chose playwriting as an academic concentration. Before that, I tried my hand at poetry and wrote some terrible short stories, the worst of which was a murder mystery entitled, “The New Year’s Eve Gun” that I wrote – and illustrated – when I was eight.
AA: What about when you aren’t writing?
GP: I spend most of my leisure time enjoying and sharing time with my family – my husband, Maurice, my children, Ted, Andy, Brandon and Cara, and my grandson, Evan. Theater, music, movies, watching basketball, travelling, discovering and exploring new places are some of my interests. I’m a board member of Coming to the Table, an organization I learned about through the genealogy work I do. CTTT acknowledges, explores and helps people interested in healing wounds from racism. I also practice yoga, but not as faithfully as I did in my younger days. Every aspect of my life, whether dramatic, mundane or anything in between, influences my writing.
AA: Were there any events or people who inspired you to write this play?
GP: I had been working on my family’s genealogy for several years when I made one of my most important and valuable genealogy discoveries – the will of the slave holder of my 3rd great-grandmother, Maria, in which he bequeaths her to his daughter, Sophronia. Sophronia moved from North Carolina to Alabama to live with her married sister and took Maria with her. At fifteen, Maria was impregnated by Sophronia’s brother-in-law, the 37- year-old head of their household, Jake. As I read the numerous glowing accounts of this man’s life that were readily available online– his Civil War service, his civic activities, his work, his wife, their children, his funeral, pictures of him and even the large house he had built, I was left to merely speculate about Maria’s life in that big house as an enslaved, unprotected young Black woman, separated from her family, working as a servant. Leavings is inspired by and dedicated to Maria Kibler, her children, and all my other relatives who endured and thrived despite the years of enslavement and its aftermath.
AA: So, there’s an extra element of reality for you?
GP: Many of the events in the play are based on things my family experienced. Even though they are the stories of my family, most African American families can tell the same stories with varying details. Racial passing, Jim Crow segregation, lack of protection from violence, these were facts of Black life in the north and south. The wounds created by this past are still open and grow larger because racism is still a fact of life. But Leavings is not a play about Black families exclusively. It is a story about all of us because all of us, Black and white, are shaped by a past that continues to exert a huge influence on our lives today. Until we fully and honestly confront this past, these ghosts — how they were born and the patterns, mindsets and actions that keep them alive today – will continue to do damage.
AA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer?
GP: Years ago I was constantly on the verge of quitting writing because I just couldn’t figure out how to balance it with my day-to-day life. I admired Gwendolyn Brooks and knew she was a mother of young children so I decided I’d write to her for advice, even though I was a stranger to her. I laid out my situation – four kids, full-time job, no time to write, how did she do it? To my amazement she wrote back. Her response was only a few words scribbled on paper: “That was my situation, exactly! Good luck!” In those words, brief as they were, Mrs. Brooks told me all I needed to know – that there was no magic formula and the only solution was to dig down deep and just keep writing. So I did.
AA: This is the second year of having four female playwrights as our finalists. Is this significant?
GP: Having all female playwrights for the second year is significant because it demonstrates the wealth of new and interesting stories and perspectives that are available for audiences to experience when storytellers whose voices may have previously been unheard are provided space to speak – loudly. By having more women’s voices in the theatre our society benefits by being able to experience a greater variety of styles, rhythms and viewpoints, which enriches us all.
AA: What do you hope that audiences take with them after seeing your play?
GP: I hope that people come to a greater appreciation of how individuals, families and entire communities experience the impact of racism throughout generations, and that the resulting problems will not be resolved simply by the passage of time or some simple solution. I also hope that audiences feel that additional, truthful light has been shed on some difficult aspects of the past and our racial situation. Today, events are presenting us with an opportunity to deal honestly with some of these deep seated issues, if we are willing to embrace the opportunity. The question each of us must answer is whether we will call up the necessary courage and seize that opportunity; or, if individually and collectively we will let the issues continue to fester, to plague us and become part of our legacy to future generations who will continue to pay the price for our inability or unwillingness to act.
2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.
This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; and The Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.
The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.