Alabama churchgoers sway in their pews, back and forth between testifying with a sanctimonious air and buzzing with gossip. “Lord, it’s hot! Hot as Hades ... in a gut-bucket town, a hundred degrees ... nowhere to go, too hot to drive around, too hot to leave the house!” Some suddenly freeze in attitudes of suspicion as the ensemble builds to a crescendo, writhing, rubbing their hands and exclaiming in unison: “We’re hot—because our church is on fire—and we’re trapped!”
The first of two staged readings of Marcus Gardley’s play in development, every tongue must confess—as vigorously performed by a cast of nine with the direction of Traveling Jewish Theatre Artistic Director Aaron Davidman for the ongoing Bay Area Playwrights Festival at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason—got off to an explosive start.
Davidman, a Berkeley High alumnus, directed Shotgun Players’ successful production of the work they commissioned from Gardley about South Berkeley, Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, in 2006.
“What Aaron and the actors have done forces me to look at what I’m doing here,” said Gardley of the unusually active staged reading. “He believes the work can’t be seen until the actors are on their feet, moving around, not with their scripts on music stands. We have such a shorthand between us, but it’s amazing to me he can do that. There’s always some major visual moment in my work, which can be described only by physical action. One old friend of mine calls me a visual thinker, but my plays are so heavy language-wise, both Aaron and I feel they need the action, not to overwhelm the audience with language. I hear that all the time: ‘It’d be great as a radio play!’ But only the action truly represents what I want to say.”
Gardley’s work-in-progress has something of the quality of a parable, though one told by and through many voices. There’s something of the air of another spinoff of Southern Romance (and Gothic), Faulkner’s Light in August, to it. Many of the characters and dramatic actions have a semi-mythical quality to them, the words Jorge Luis Borges used to describe Walt Whitman’s persona as a poet, and perhaps a fundamental American stance that combines a desire for storytelling, nostalgia for roots and a way of coming to grips with the multiplicity and confusion of the present moment by harnessing those urges.
every tongue must confess weaves a web of characters and incidents that include a young woman (Rebecca White) gone mute, returned to her cracker father (Michael Oakes) after her mother’s (Julia McNeal) shooting by her boyfriend (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid); a gravedigger (Robert Hampton) discovering a Bible with a strange family tree in an empty grave; a forceful stranger just called Blacksmith (also Abdul-Rashid), a kind of Stagolee figure, fleeing something and moving in on prophet and healer Mother Sister Madkins (C. Kelly Wright) and her son, Shadrack (Roy Ellis), who dreams of running off to Nashville to play spoons; a chorus that takes up the community’s voice, led by Myers Clark, and a kind of counter-chorus, a reporter (Pjay Phillips) on TV, spieling out the events as news.
Each thread is tangled with the others; there is much symbolism but also humor. “Marcus’ humor lets us show difficult things without them getting too dark,” said actor P. J. Phillips.
“I’m most interested in what leads up to the burning,” said Gardley. “I set out to understand a question: what would make someone want to burn a church? I found out in a case down South the arsonist was also part of the relief committee, rebuilding churches he’d burnt down. I want to go deeper, raise questions for the audience to answer, take it a step further.”
Gardley’s father was a pastor for the City of Refuge, East 14th and National in Oakland. Studying poetry, he took a class in playwrighting, “and that led to a deep love of the theater. We did plays in church, but they weren’t very well written.”
Often compared to August Wilson, Gardley said, “It’s a great compliment. I met him a couple of times. He was writing about a very specific community in Pittsburgh, and became so well-known and so specific in his work, I think that in the end he found it hard to write outside his box. But we both write about black communities in transition. And he also was a poet.”
Another playwright Gardley talked about was Eisa Davis, who grew up in South Berkeley (and has said she didn’t know her neighborhood was called Lorin until Gardley’s play came out) and also had her Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Bulrusher produced by Shotgun.
“I’m a big fan of her work,” he said. “I’d heard of her, but never met her until she became my first mentor. She doesn’t like me calling her that, because we’re close in age, but when I was in graduate drama school, New Dramatists in New York, which assigns members to young playwrights as mentors, gave me to Eisa. It was a great day. We found out we were from the same area. It’s great to have someone who’s gone through the same doors you have, to advise you. She’s one of those people who can sense you need something, very attuned. When I taught a class at USF, I used Bulrusher and she came to talk to my students.”
“There was a time we and other Bay Area playwrights felt we were not being paid attention to here,” Gardley went on, “that they hadn’t even heard of us. We were known in other places. There’d be a national search by a theater here, and they’d come up with someone they didn’t know was from here. I’d get asked, ‘Who are the Bay Area playwrights?’ I don’t even live here anymore and I know who they are.”
Gardley, who now teaches at Columbia University, has received a commission from Berkeley Rep to do a play about Oakland, which he’ll base on the Icarus myth, and set in the Acorn-area projects—“all torn down now for new apartments”—he was born in West Oakland. “There’ll be a mythic element, but it’ll be grounded in real people I grew up with.”
Gardley talked about “liking going back and forth between New York and here, that being here “gives the golden opportunity to do community work. The history of this area is important to me. What the Bay Area provided was a close-knit community—why my plays require a large cast: so many people had a hand in my growing up, so many opinions. The Bay Area has many voices. It’s diverse, but it’s a specific diversity.”
There is one more staged reading of every tongue must confess at 4 p.m. Sunday Aug. 3 at the Magic Theatre 2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, produced by The Playwrights Foundation. (415) 626-0453 x105, www.playwrightsfoundation.org.