Blundering into Art

One afternoon last spring, I walked into the Center to find Debbie Dewees, our graduate coordinator, on the phone and looking quizzical. She covered the receiver with her hand and asked, "Jim, did you ever write a play called African Medea?"

"Yeah," I said, in 1968."

"Well, someone wants to talk to you about it."

The person on the line turned out to be Mical Whitaker, who directed the play in Harlem forty years before and produced it for the Lincoln Center Street Theater Festival a couple of summers later. I hadn't spoken to him since.

When you haven't talked to someone for nearly half a century, there's a lot of catching up to do. Mical had run his theater company in East Harlem for fifteen years before going home to Georgia and re-creating himself as a university professor. He’d recently met a young woman in the drama department of a historically black college in Savannah. When he discovered that her dream was to perform Medea, he had trouble containing himself.

"Look no further," he told her. "I have the Medea for you. The only trick will be tracking down the script. And the playwright." But of course one of the wonders of our age is that Google can track down anyone. Mical's plan, if I agreed, was to direct the play in Savannah next spring.

I hung up and sat hunched over my desk, a little stunned. As a writer, you become resigned to the fact that most of what you write disappears like pebbles down a well, but forty years ago was one deep well.

It had all been Mical's idea. I was twenty-six years old, cobbling together a living writing plays and directing them in Harlem with a Poverty Program grant. I was also teaching a playwriting class in the James Weldon Johnson Theater Arts Center where Mical had a company of actors. When he asked if I would be adapt Medea for them, I had my reservations. A young white Midwesterner writing for a black troupe? I was no expert on Africa or the slave trade and my secret opinion of Greek drama was that you couldn't pay me to go to a play with actors in draped robes. I had no business writing this play. But I was young and dumb and hungry to get whatever I could on stage. It took me about ten minutes to say yes.

I did research in the New York Public Library by day and sat up at night with Robinson Jeffers’ Euripedes at my elbow. What I was only dimly aware of when I started was that I wasn't writing about Africa in the 19th century so much as I was writing about Harlem in 1968. The play was obviously about race, but it was also about the on-going debate over violence and non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement, about the cost of retribution, and about the building tension in the streets that anyone white or black would have be deaf or blind not to be aware of.

Our initial read-through was a night in early April. The brilliant young actress named Detra Lambert, cast as Medea, didn't show up. Mical was fuming. When she walked in an hour late, he was ready to dress her down before he saw in her face that something was terribly wrong. He asked what happened to her.

"Didn't you hear?" she said. "Martin Luther King's been shot."

The night of our first rehearsal turned out to be the first night of the Harlem riots.

We opened the play in June. How good was it? It’s impossible for me to say, but I do remember that the atmosphere in the theater was charged. How could it not have been? We put an aggrieved and vengeful black Medea on stage with a white Jason in front of a Harlem audience when riots were breaking out all over the country. The actors may have been in Greek robes, but the tragedy was an American one.

Last month I met Mical in New York and we had a reunion of all the actors in his troupe. The old stories flowed—about what it had been like to perform in parks and basketball courts with bent rims, of having to deal with gushing hydrants and crying children and booming radios, of putting on make-up in the back of school buses. It was dismaying how much I had forgotten. Mical had put together a slide show: photos of a thousand people gathered on the Lincoln Center plaza, of Mayor Lindsay introducing everyone in their Afros and dashikis, of the editorial in The New York Times.

Looking at those old pictures, I was struck by two things: first of all, that we may have done something that mattered, and secondly, how young we were. We'd all been in our mid-twenties with no idea of what we were getting into. We'd been flying blind.

Running the Michener Center, I spend a lot of time strategizing with writers about their futures. I like to do it. I like to plan and I like to be helpful. But sometimes I wonder if there really is any way to plan any of this. Sometimes when you're an artist, being young and dumb can be a blessed state.