|THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! INTERVIEWS DIRECTOR AND ACTOR LORNA LITTLEWAY
FEBRUARY 3, 2008
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
Cherita Armstrong as "Blues Queen"
Angela Arnsold also as "Blues Queen"
Lorna Littleway is a 2002 Dramatist Guild Fellow, and a recipient of the 2002 Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She has received new play development grants from the Drama League and the Stage Directors Foundation, and a playwright fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, 2002 as well as grant support for playwriting from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Lorna's plays Bang! Bang! Bang!, Young Sistas, Motion and Location, If You Love Me, A Collective Piss and the Devil's Beating His Wife, Fin'ly Free, Billy, Lena and The Duke: A Night of Ellington Music!, Juneteenth Cotton Club Revue, and Kindler Gentler Nation have been produced, nationally, at Ensemble Studio, Vital Theatre Company, and Fringe NYC, Luna Sea (San Francisco), Little Theatre (Dallas), Chocolate Church (Bath, Maine), and Iowa State University (Ames); and at the Kentucky Center, Rudyard Kipling, and Shawnee Park in Louisville. She has also written several plays about 18th Century African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley, and is working on a book for the musical, WAR: Women of the American Revolution. Littleway is also working on an anthology of her plays, Juneteenth Jambalaya.
Ivan Thomas as "Cool Dude"
In addition to the plays she has staged for Juneteenth Legacy, Lorna Littleway has directed extensively on the regional theatre circuit and at colleges and universities. Some of her credits include: Willie and Esther, featuring Ella Joyce, Black Spectrum (Queens) &National Black Theatre Festival (Winston-Salem, N.C.); Robert Johnson Trick the Devil, 7 Guitars, Home, Kingdom of Earth, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, St. Louis Black Rep; Miss Evers Boys, The Grandmama Tree: a folkfable, Stamford Theatre Works; Honey, Hush! An Uprising Over Some Green, Horizon Theatre (Atlanta); Your Obituary Is a Dance, Actors Theatre, and many more productions.
HOLLER!: Many of your activities use Juneteenth Day as a theme. What about Juneteenth Day has inspired you?
LITTLEWAY: I first heard about Juneteenth when I was a radio news reporter in Dallas. Juneteenth is a state holiday in Texas. And I was very curious about this holiday of significance to black people that was observed "officially" in Texas.
So I did some research and learned that Juneteenth was essentially black slaves' response to their "official" freeing by way of the Emancipation Proclamation. And that story was never told in the history books. The slaves who migrated into the western territories (like Texas), under cover of the chaos and distraction of the Civil War, did not learn of their freeing until 1865 (2 1/2 years after it was issued) when the Union commander General George Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston.
A little known caveat of the EP was that the slaves were not to move away but were instructed to stay put and to negotiate with their former owners for wages for their labor. The slaves ignored that caveat and retreated to Dallas, where for 10 days they celebrated by doing whatever it was they wanted to do to satisfy body and soul and heretofore could not do. Then some set out to neighboring territories (now Oklahoma and New Mexico) to find kin and to inform them of their freedom.
So the inspiration stems from the fact that black people took something given to them and made it work for them in their own fashion. "Yes, I am glad to be officially free but I will work out my future on my terms, and not stick around and haggle with master as you suggest. I have a better way that works for me!" Because our history education is so bereft of what blacks did to get free and of our lives in the immediate post-slavery years, there was a legacy void to fill; hence the inspiration for Juneteenth.
HOLLER!: How do you feel about Kwanzaa? There are some people who feel that Kwanzaa is a contrived, artificial observance, and that Juneteenth Day has more relevance for African Americans.
LITTLEWAY: I do not think it is a matter of one versus the other. It doesn't make Kwanzaa less important because it is a creation of ideals opposed to historical fact. I think we sell ourselves short, our cultural influence in America when we disclaim or try to downplay Kwanzaa, Black History Month, etc. I think they are all great, King Day, too! January 1st used to be known as Emancipation Day. Now we only know it as New Year's Eve Day. Embrace cultural distinction,I say.
HOLLER!: In November you presented a new play at Henry Street Settlement House, A Little Chat With God. Could you tell us something about that?
LITTLEWAY: A Little Chat With God is an absurdist memory play that I wrote in 1986. It's about sexual pleasure and predation and the fine line between the two. And it is based on the premise of reincarnation. There are 3 characters -"She", a reincarnated artist/dancer, "He", a Mime who represents different males, and the Creator. She is trying to negotiate with Creator to postpone the time of her death, which the Creator says is "imminent".
It's part of a trilogy called "Black Absurdity", and was first presented as a reading at La MaMa ETC (on 1st between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) in the early 90's. I had not looked at it again until last summer when the play was presented by my theatre company, at its summer festival in Louisville, Juneteenth Jamboree of New Plays. I was very excited by the work done by the actors, director and producer because in this presentation there was movement.
It was excellent timing and good fortune that The Field, a service organization for small dance and arts companies, has this program at Henry Street to present experimental works. The production was directed by a choreographer and it benefited greatly from that and the casting of "He" with the dancer, Amon Bey.
HOLLER!: Are you planning another production of A Little Chat With God?
LITTLEWAY: The play was accepted by the Riant Theater for its Strawberry One-Act Festival, and the choreographer was going to dance/act the role of "She"; but the financial cost of remounting for just one performance did not make economic sense for JLT, so we passed on the opportunity. But yes, we are always looking for future opportunities. It is a short work of 20 minutes, so must be paired with a complementary piece, and because JLT is a small-budget company, must minimize financial risk. Absurdity and dance-theatre is a hard sell.
HOLLER!: Part of the year you're in Louisville Kentucky; are you teaching African American literature there?
LITTLEWAY:I used to teach studio theatre courses and African American dramatic literature at the University of Louisville, but I resigned in 1999.
HOLLER!: What are some of the cultural possibilities in Louisville.
LITTLEWAY: Being in Louisville has been very enriching and rewarding. There were no black plays being produced regularly there outside of the U of L shows; but there was tremendous appreciation for it among audience, and a passion to do it among students, who acted to fuel that passion after graduation. So there was opportunity and we seized it!
HOLLER!: Does the university give you a free reign for your projects?
LITTLEWAY: It's no longer moot. We found a way to do what had to be done to the betterment of all parties involved.
HOLLER!: How did you become involved in theater?
LITTLEWAY: My mother wanted cultured children. My brothers gravitated towards dance and music and I chose theater, or it chose me. It was also the only subject I was willing to devote the time in college to excel at; and my parents did not burden me with the "how are you going to make a living at that" routine.
HOLLER!: An earlier play of yours dealt with a young woman who wanted to be a baseball player, and who also needed to resolve her sexual identity. In both that play and A Chat, the principle characters seem to be wrestling with their conscience, searching within themselves for answers about who they are and what might be the "truth" of their lives; are those the themes that you like for your work to embrace?
LITTLEWAY: I've never analyzed my plays. Someone starts talking in my head and she wants what she says to be made public! But I think that if you are a minority, and by that I mean that you are not part of the dominant cultural presence, then I don't see how you can't help but trying to fit in and wondering why you don't fit in.
HOLLER!: Do you have a direction, an overall course that you see your work following, or do you have many different areas, with each addressing themes that are not necessarily related except that they are coming from you?
LITTLEWAY: I get to express my work in many different ways: as a producer, a director, playwright and an actress. At this point in time, I am usually the initiator of the project and that is very exciting and freeing. So I would say that the commonality is that the work essentially comes from me, and that me is always trying to figure out well how do I make this world work for me because it sure doesn't seem like it is intended to. And there are a whole lot of people like me.
HOLLER!: Who are some of the writers, playwrights and actors that you admire or that inspire you?
LITTLEWAY: August Wilson and Tennessee Williams are playwrights who inspire me because they speak so eloquently for the complicated souls. As a director I love to delve into Wilson's and Williams' characters with actors. Directors I admire include George Wolfe (I cannot see any other Tempest production), the late George Bass, who encouraged me to trust my creativity over the rules, and Jon Jory for his phenomenal efficiency as a director, and for the belief to invite Juneteenth Legacy Theatre to his theater when he led ATL. I think that Ella Joyce and S. Epatha Mererson are the two most fabulous actresses. Sue Lawless is my absolute favorite. She is an actor’s director. She’s also very facile and inventive, and loads of fun in rehearsal!
HOLLER!: What are some upcoming projects?
LITTLEWAY: There are 4 works that are in various stages of development and have had public performances. They are Juneteenth Cotton Club Revue, Faith, Hope and Charity, A Little Chat With God and DARASA: A Civil Rights Tribute in Song. There are 3 plays that we have presented at our festival in Louisville that I would like to start developing. Steve Willis' Passing Ceremonies reminds me a bit of A Little Chat, except its characters are real people poets like Harlem Renaissance luminary, Bruce Nugent, and AIDS activist, Essex Hemphill. Steve also has a one-woman play about actress, Diana Sands. Louisville writer Toni Taylor, has two plays that I love, Can You Hear It/ This Land is Ours, which tells the story of slavery through inanimate objects like land, tools, and buildings. And Toni's The Triangle, which links the Middle Passage and contemporary times.
Lorna Littleway can be reached at http://www.juneteenthlegacytheatre.com People can subscribe to JLTNews by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org