New Work

 

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UP ALL NIGHT

“…This mornin’ New Bethel welcomes our new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Clinton Forbes. I know y’all want to know his credentials. Yes, he’s got a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and he done got his Doctor’s, too, but none of this is important. No, he’s got the education, and he’s got the callin’. He’s been anointed with the Spirit and he loves the Lord…”

Anna May and the Preacher

Anna May and the Preacher: A Collection of Short Stories, 2nd Edition

 Jovelyn Richards, a friend and colleague, is a comedienne and actor. When she broached the subject of doing an improvisational interpretation of my short story, Anna May and the Preacher, she literally took my breath away. I recovered and said yes. I was, and continue to be honored by her request. I was also intrigued by the possibilities.

On the Tuesday night before the premier featuring student Belles from my alma mater, Bennett College, located in Greensboro, NC, acting out the tale against the backdrop of a reimagined saga beyond established boundaries, Jovelyn posed a question. Her query was prefaced by an explanation:

“Sometimes when people see their work performed on stage, or in a movie, they are either thrilled with what they see, or they cringe and their flesh crawls because what they see is so awful to them. Will you,” she paused, “tell me if there’s something you don’t like about the play?”

I was nonplused, to say the least, and not prepared to respond in any form or fashion. Jovelyn, however, was serious. I could neither downplay nor dismiss the significance of what was at stake. I ended up telling her I probably wouldn’t say anything if there was something I didn’t like. My position was based on logic which goes something like this: if I found I didn’t like any, or all, aspects of the production, before I could share my feelings and concerns with her I needed to analyze my own reactions. I would be duty bound to identify the reasons behind my dislike. I would have to ask myself why?

She raised her interrogatory during a feel good moment. We were dining with Elisabeth Ritson, an associate professor of theater at Bennett, our point of contact for the production, and Sharon Saunders, Chief of Communications, having a good time, enjoying a delicious meal. They were riveted by our interaction, each one hanging onto our every word while mentally calculating my response. I was overwhelmed with excitement and anticipation. The possibility of not liking the play wasn’t a conscious, unconscious, or subconscious consideration. I had already made up my mind: I knew I would love it, but how could I explain this to Jovelyn? At the time my emotions were fueled by an intuitive yet abstract knowing: everything would be alright.

What I didn’t know was just how much I’d love the production!!! I did not write my collection of short stories thinking, dreaming, or expecting her gift: one day someone, anyone, for that matter, would come along and say, ‘I want to turn your work into a stage production with a twist.’ What Jovelyn, Aja, Ashley, Britni, Clyje, Cyera, Doris, Janae, Lamia, Sasha, Stephanie, and Tyana brought to life was a heartfelt, authentic reimagined version of Anna May and the Preacher which added depth to the characters and the context while plumbing the unwritten story of my protagonist. I am amazed, filled with awe, and gratitude for the collective vision of my Bennett sisters and my sistah friend. I marvel at Jovelyn’s precognition and intuitivism. This a priori knowledge is one, I say one, of her many gifts. I see Anna May more fully as the result of Jovelyn’s ability to read between the lines, revealing the impetus for what appears to be an impetuous decision but is actually anything but.

Janae’s nuanced interpretation of Anna May reveals her vulnerability. Ashley’s Dennis May brings Dinky to life as a triflin’, jive-talkin’, irresistible philandering heel. Britni’s Rev. Dr. Forbes already knows why he’s the newly appointed shepherd of New Bethel Baptist. He brings his A-game, knowing it’s a must if his first Sunday in the pulpit will seal the deal. Cyera’s dance sequence, an improvisation serving as a backdrop to Rev. Brother Pastor’s sermon, is fraught with mixed messages, for not everyone present will come away from this corporate worship experience with the same understanding. Her performance not only highlights the preaching; it speaks to individual soul searching on levels too varied to enumerate.

Clyje, without saying a word, shows us a sister, Deniece Dudley, otherwise known as Dufus, who is universally derided – a stereotypical response dictated by her position – who ultimately proves to be smarter than her looks suggest. Stephanie, Tyana, and Clyje all interpret Big Tee as the beloved, supportive, plain spoken friend who calls things as she sees them, no matter what. The vocalists, Lamia, Aja, Doris, and Sasha are all members of the Bennett College choir. Their presence adds to the mystery and meaning of congregational worship in the Black church.

What’s not to love when someone reads your work and deems it worthy of analysis from another perspective – through a relatively unknown genre? Word-for-word improvisation is a new technique for mining the meaning of prose. It takes the reader on a journey in which the artists delve more deeply into the characters, the setting, and the plot. Had there been awkward moments, they, too, would have been revealing.

Up All Night resonated with audience members who have read the story. If they’re like me, the story will never read the same. I’ll always be reminded of how insight channeled through acting can affect what one sees, feels, and takes away from what’s on the page. Humor, both subtle and overt, suffuses the narrative. The cast lovingly kept this characteristic in the forefront. I’m sure Professor Ritson, Jovelyn, and my Bennett sisters can identify areas where they’d like to see improvement. The bottom line for me, though is this: the cast nailed it!!! The talk back and the reviews are all the proof one needs. So Jovelyn, to answer your question, I’m calling on Big Tee, or maybe Aunt Bertha, from a Much-Married Woman: “Naw baby, I ain’t had nary a problem. Go on wit’ yo baaad self! By the way, you got any other of these here stories up yo’ sleeve? Cain’t wait to see what you gonna do with ‘em, have mercy!!!”

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