Richard Wright, the great African-American writer, whose novel Native Son (a deliberate black perspective to parallel Dreiser’s “Great American Novel,” An American Tragedy) and autobiographical book Black Boy have been taught in schools and colleges for generations, is featured at his centennial as the main character in Richard Talavera’s original play, Before the Dream: The Strange Death (and Life) of Richard Wright, staged by Oakland Public Theatre this weekend at the Noodle Factory in West Oakland, before a San Francisco run at Teatro de la Esperanza in the Mission District.
The play concentrates on Wright’s final years, in the black American expatriate literary scene in France. Commenting on the title and the foreign setting of the play, Talavera said, “Before the Dream refers to what was going on before the height of the Civil Rights Movement, before the March on Washington and King’s famous speech. For those who are familiar with Native Son and Black Boy, it may seem surprising that the play’s action is in postwar Paris, among black expatriates. But that is where Wright—and the others—chose to live and where all the struggles and contradictions in his earlier life and books got discussed, argued over—and came to a head.”
Researching Wright’s life, Talavera read of encounters between Wright and other expatriate writers, such as Chester Himes, who recounted them in his memoirs. “Himes’ voice is so different from Wright’s,” said director Norman Gee, “but he was there—and gave detailed descriptions of what went on.”
The discussions and arguments Himes said he witnessed suggested scenes. “I knew there was a play there,” Gee said. Following up with other memoirs and biographies, a method of storytelling was suggested, too, by the different points of view of the various writers and participants, different interpretations, even diametrically opposed testimonies.
Narration by different voices, representing the different points of view, sets the scene for dialogue and for soliloquy by Wright and other characters, including novelist James Baldwin, Ollie Harrington and the great poet Langston Hughes—who, meeting Wright after years apart, just before his still-puzzling death, was taken into his bedroom, where Wright was resting in a suit and tie, “looking like he was already lying in his coffin.”
“We present the different remembrances of events,” said Talavera, “and let the audience put the pieces together.”
Gee, of Oakland Public Theater, began working with Talavera early on in the project, with a background in staging narrative work in his own productions and with other troupes, like Word for Word. Gee found actors for a fascinating series of readings, which took place over much of the past year at Oakland Main Library, San Francisco Public Library and other venues, like Teatro de la Esperanza. The readings covered the different eras and work in Wright’s life, including his involvement with activism, the Communist Party, the African American community and churches, as well as with other writers.
Wright’s death, reported as a heart attack in a Paris hospital, was preceded by Wright’s prediction of the possibility of his own demise, referred to cryptically. Various speculations about complicity include American intelligence services—who did have an interest in surveiling the expatriate black Americans—and Soviet agents. A mysterious woman visited Wright in his room shortly before his death, and Harrington was called, urgently asked to “get right over here!” All of this happened while Wright’s family was out of town.
“There are a lot of questions,” Talavera remarked, “and Wright was paranoid. We show that. But there were forgeries in newspapers, false accounts of what he said—reasons for him to be paranoid, too.”
Gee mentioned the casting of two of the principal actors. “In the beginning, I wasn’t worried about casting, just finding actors who’d do a good job with the text for the readings,” he said. “Reg Clay was somebody I’d known for a while, and knew he could do that. But at soon as he read, I could hear similar cadences, that he expressed himself in similar ways to Wright. Other actors moved around from part to part, reading to reading. But Reg was always Richard Wright.”
And for the young James Baldwin, Gee picked Thanidiwe Thomas DeShazor, “who I met in downtown Oakland and first talked to about jazz, and found out he was a solo performer. Later, it became obvious he was right for Baldwin—his youthful energy, and that he loved Baldwin’s love of language.”
The play also features Wright’s aphoristic haikus, unpublished during his lifetime.
“They became a punctuation in the play,” said Gee. “I started thinking of them as snapshots, as commentary about different moments in his life.”
One is allusive of much of his work: “In the falling snow/ a laughing boy holds out his palms/ until they are white.” Another, read by his daughter Julia at his memorial service (she commented, “That’s Daddy!”), proved personally elegiac: “Burning out its time/ and timing out its burning/ one lonely candle.”
Before the Dream: The Mysterious Death (and Life) of Richard Wright
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday at the Noodle Factory, 1255 26th St.,
Oakland. $9-20. 534-9529.