A&E  

Two Men Representing the Best of their Culture

A new play about iconic poets Langston Hughes and Cuban Poet Laureate Nicol?s Guill?n - Q & A w/ playwright and director

By Carlos San Miguel
Published on LatinoLA: April 14, 2010


Two Men Representing the Best of their Culture


"Langston & Nicol?s" - a new play by Bernardo Solano & Towne Street Theatre
April 2 - May 2, 2010 - Fri/ Sat 8PM & Sun 3PM - additional performances. prior to May 2nd are pending/ Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., LA 90028 - corner of Hollywood & Highland

for more info/ photos/ videos/ purchase tickets - visit:townestreet.org
email/ call: info@townestreet.org or 213/ 624-4796

produced/ commissioned by Towne Street Theatre & co-commissioned by Robey Theater Co.
DISCOUNTS: ANY union member & students w/ card, seniors & groups
INDUSTRY COMPS: casting/ Directors, producers, agents, studio/ production executives, etc
volunteers are also needed - ushers, marketing help, video production, etc.

A historical-based play on the 30-year friendship between iconic African-American poet Langston Hughes & Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate Nicol?s Guillen incorporated with poetry, music & dance. Many of the characters are based on real people.

Story Synopsis at the end of this article.

Q & A with director: Nancy Cheryll Davis & playwright: Bernardo Solano

Q: Langston Hughes & Nicol?s Guill?n - can you give an "overview" of the title characters, their history, contributions, legacies? What spoke to you the most to say "This is a story I'd like to tell" & how familiar were you w/ one or both men's work prior to research for the play?

Nancy Cheryll Davis:
Langston Hughes is the most well known African-American poet in America. His contributions as a poet, writer, essayist, activist, playwright and composer for the greater part of the 20th century are far reaching - just Google his name and find out. Nicol?s Guillen, the Cuban Poet Laureate, was as important to his country as Langston was to the United States. His decision to focus his work on the Afro-Cuban connection was controversial at the time but made him the legend he became. I have loved Hughes' work and been fascinated by his journey as an artist. Not so with Guill?n, but once I discovered his work, I became intrigued by his work as well.

Bernardo Solano:
I was very taken with the similarities between both men. They were born the same year, both came from families of mixed race, they both went against the wishes of their fathers to pursue their dreams, they each used music that was indigenous to their cultures to explore their poetry and their worlds, and they had this little known friendship which I found to be an enticing palette to paint from.

Q: What inspired the creation of the play ? And when/ how did it happen, etc ?

NCD: I attended a Western States Theater Conference in 2004 and the speaker was the director of the Folk Museum at the Smithsonian Institute - James Early. His welcoming speech reflected on the need for those of us in the field to begin looking at presenting our work from a multicultural viewpoint. At the same time, the conflict between Blacks and Latino youth in Los Angeles was escalating. I had been thinking of a theater piece, which could incorporate both cultures and show our similarities vs. differences in the hope that the piece would help in the healing of this divide. Mr. Early and I had a conversation after the conference regarding the need for multicultural work and the balance of promoting your own culture at the same time. He suggested several ideas that I might look to for material, one of them being the meeting between Langston Hughes and Nicol?s Guill?n. I was immediately drawn to this meeting and their similarities and decided this was the piece to develop.

Q: What is the history of Towne Street Theatre and how this story was chosen?

NCD: The Towne Street Theatre was founded in 1993 after the 1992 LA riots. The City of LA had asked can the arts help heal LA - we responded by producing a series of stage readings by multiethnic playwrights whose plays reflected universal needs and wants - again showing that we are more unlike then not. The theatre was founded a year after the series began. Healing societal divides through our art has been our longstanding goal and this play ties in perfectly.

Q: How did Towne Street select Bernardo to write the script, were other writers considered?
is this Bernardo's first collaboration w/ TST?

NCD: Bernardo had sent in a work of his to the 1992 reading series - I can't remember what it was right now but we talked and struck up a friendship/kinship. When I decided to develop the play - I immediately thought of him as the perfect person to write the piece. He responded in the affirmative and also became excited about the possibilities this play could have.

BS: I wrote a play entitled "Science and the Primitives" that TST produced in 1994.

Q: Talk about the development of the script from conception to the full production

NCD: Bernardo wrote a short synopsis that I used to begin the search for funding. Everyone I mentioned/ told this story to was intrigued by it. In 2006 the LA Dept of Cultural Affairs awarded us a grant to pay for the commissioning and workshops of the play. Ben Guillory and I had been in discussion about a possible partnership between TST and Robey Theatre Company. They came on board as co-commissioners of the script in 2007. That same year the Ford Foundation gave a grant to Towne Street Theatre to continue the development and production of the play.

For the next two years myself, Bernardo and Ben met. We hashed out the outline, which changed a few times before we settled on this. After each draft - there were 5 over the course of the 2 years - myself and Ben would have notes and then we would meet with Bernardo and discuss it in detail, listen to music, read the research, etc. This process continued after each workshop as well. The first public staged reading was at the Attic Theatre in June 2008. The response from the audience was astounding. The final reading was in June 2009 at Stage 52 - again sold out houses and passionate responses to the play.

The play had its final workshop in Sept. 2009. The production team has been with the play from conception. The Stella Adler Theatre was chosen because it is where we produce our main stage plays - we are considered in residence there.

Q: Several of the characters are based on real people - how much are you sticking to the facts or taking artistic license - and if so why?

NCD: Dramatic license is always a factor when dealing with real people - it is a theatrical piece and has to have a bit more sometimes then what is fact to make it plausible and entertaining to the audience.

BS: The play started with the assumption that it would be about Langston and Nicolas' friendship. Then began an intense period of research, reading their poetry, autobiographies, and articles written about them individually or directly about their relationship. And then fiction comes into play. The primary challenge was how to fill in the holes. There is only so much known about their friendship. Large chunks of time are unaccounted for, and this is where imagination begins. There is much that isn't known and so I had to rely on a few facts, my intuition, and a sense of what might be dramatic and interesting enough storytelling-wise and character-wise that could carry the play through to the end. There is as much fiction as there is fact in the play, my greatest hope is that the fiction doesn't overwhelm or bend the known too much with the "unknown" but instead creates a plausible tension between them. One of the simpler solutions to the issue of so much time passing in the play is the device of the two men writing letters to each other, essentially engaging in dialogue as if they were in the same place at the same time.

Q: What inspired the choice for the poems used in the play? did you try to pick those considered their "top ten" & then form the story around those ? or vice versa? of the poems included which one(s) are your favorite(s) & why ?

NCD: Bernardo chose the poems to move the story - but I love all that were included - including the ones that were taken out

BS: On many occasions I chose poems that to me say something about their political, social and personal beliefs at various points in their lives. And how the situations in their countries directly affected the tone and tenor of their poetry. Favorite poems? I love all the poems in the play, but the one of Langston's that most affects me is "Let America Be America Again." Because it's completely personal and political at the same time. Nicol?s' Son Motifs (eight poems) paint an incredible portrait of a people at a particular moment in history, but are also very politically astute and full of humor and attention to the small things that make us human.

Q: Talk a little about the inclusion or exclusion of certain characters/ scenes - the other real life characters and the addition of Elsie Roxborough since the last staged reading (in 2009) -
were other prominent figures like Neruda, Hemingway (or others) considered or involved in earlier drafts ?

NCD: There was discussion of adding Zora Neale Hurston, Hemingway and others of the time but we decided it was better to add someone people were not familiar with - such as Elsie who only came to the last draft. None of the others were in any of the drafts.

BS: There could have been a cast of thousands. Playwrights have to make tough choices when it comes to real people populating a play. Among other considerations, you want to find and/or invent key moments in the characters' lives, but you want to do it cleanly, economically--most bang for your buck, so to speak. I went with my gut choices. And then there's the question of adding other famous people. To include Hemingway or Zora Neale Hurston would create many new expectations--you have to be very sure of what you're doing by bringing such iconic and well-known personalities into a piece of fiction. Remember, this isn't the Biography Channel. It's a play that has a life and a logic of its own, one that hopefully honors the spirit of these two men yet also has the latitude to explore the creators' own personal connections to their lives and their work.

Q: What have been some of the more challenging aspects of telling a story that takes place over 20 - 30 years?

NCD: There was much discussion on this - and I suggested we use the memory play model - starting at the present and going back in time is a convenient way used by many plays and movies. It was also intentionally decided it would not be linear in the sense of a conventional play.

BS: Then began an intense period of research, reading the poetry, autobiographies, and articles written about them individually or directly about their relationship. And then fiction comes into play. The primary challenge was how to fill in the holes. There is only so much known about their friendship. Large chunks of time are unaccounted for, and this is where imagination There is much that isn't known and so I had to rely on a few facts, my intuition, and a sense of what might be dramatic and interesting enough storytelling-wise and character-wise that could carry the play through to the end. There is as much fiction as there is fact in the play, my greatest hope is that the fiction doesn't overwhelm or bend the known too much with the "unknown" but instead creates a plausible tension between them. One of the simpler solutions to the issue of so much time passing in the play is the device of the two men writing letters to each other, essentially engaging in dialogue as if they were in the same place at the same time.

Q: What do you consider the themes of the play and hope the audience takes away from it?

NCD: The themes are friendship and love of country. I hope the audience realizes the connection between Latinos and African Americans has a historical base and that we have more in common then not. I also hope they discover more of the work of both Hughes and Guill?n.

BS: Some of the major themes are: The similarities and the disparities between the African-American and the African-Cuban struggles of the 20th Century. Another theme is the question of how should people deal with bringing change to society--revolution via armed resistance, or through approaches like protest and non-violence?

I hope that the audience will walk away from the play understanding that there is more that unites people of different cultures and races than there is that separate us.

Q: discuss a little about your own personal journey as a professional working in the theater (and/ or film/ TV) - the industry as a whole and what drives you ?

NCD: I began my career as an actress and have had success in all mediums but being the Artistic/ Producing Director of my own theatre is where I can get to do what I WANT to do. TV and film have many more restrictions placed on it due to many factors, money and fame being the main ones. My creative evolution from actress to producer to director and now all three, has been full of peaks and valleys, but I have to say I am very happy and satisfied with my choices and where I am now and where I am going.

BS: I've been a professional playwright since 1988. A lot has happened in those 22 years. I was part of the wave of Latino playwrights who benefited from a new awareness on the part of mainstream theater companies that they needed to address more segments of the population in the 1980's and 90's. But I've also seen the shrinking of those opportunities during this decade. Some would argue that it's a good thing, that Latino playwrights should be far enough that they don't need special programs to get attention and productions. Others would say that the need hasn't diminished and in fact, has only increased over time.

As far what drives me...the opportunity to say things that need to be said, to ask questions that need to be asked, and to go to both joyous and painful places (and hopefully take the audience along for the ride.)

Q: This play seems unique in that it has so many actors of color - which does not happen w/ most plays - what was the casting process like - are all the actors members of TST?

NCD: TST's mission is producing and developing plays about the African American experience - hence the actors are always people of color. How each play interacts with another culture determines who the other actors are. Because our company is primarily African American - we had to cast the Latino actors from outside but some had been part of the readings, others are new. Of the 17 actors and musicians - there are four official company members.

Q: What have been the ... "joys" of having such a large cast (17 actors) & so many characters ? did you originally consider a different manner to tell the story you wanted to tell ?

NCD: Big casts are a norm at Towne Street Theatre. I never thought of limiting the play because of the number of characters. I love the fact we have such a variance of ages, experience and cultures. They all bring their own unique flavor to each character and I am lucky that they are all of good spirit!

BS: Once a script is written, it's up to the actors to "bring it home." Without them the whole thing is just an academic endeavor. Their interpretation of the characters is what makes it come to life. And then of course, the audience interacting with the actors is the final piece of the puzzle.

Q: Production aspects - from Havana to Harlem ... and beyond what approach are you employing for staging the play?

NCD: The play was always conceived as a multi-media piece. I had wanted to direct and produce a play where we incorporate ALL the elements and this became the perfect vehicle to do so.

Q: For people unfamiliar w/ Hughes and/ or Guill?n or their volumes of literary work - how can the play be described to get someone enthusiastic to want to come see it? Especially to anyone who typically doesn't go to theater?

NCD: The play is told through music, poetry and dance, which I hope will entice people to discover their work. I tell them its about friendship and love and hope for the future.

BS: One aspect of their poetic work that might surprise people who are unfamiliar with them is the musicality of their words. And this production explores this music, both in the form of American Blues and the Cuban Son styles of music. This is a play with poetry and music--a combination you don't see very often in theater.

Q: Poetry, music and dancing? Is this a musical or a kitchen sink drama?

NCD: Neither! Just a great play full of artistic joy!

BS: Kitchen sink drama? Don't say those words!

Q: History ... these men are icons who did not shy away from being proud of their ethnicity ... this play is about what it's like to be a person of color throughout VERY difficult times - why this story - about these two men and to do it now ? isn't "racism over?"

NCD: Racism is never over - these two men represent the best of their culture and also the difficulties associated with being an artist of color - the path is not the same for those of color then or now.

BS: Racism is not over. It may have changed, it may be subtler now, but it's still here. Sometimes it helps to see it more starkly (as in this play) to remind us how pervasive and ugly and dangerous it really is.

Q: Is this a show for parents to bring their children to? wasn't Langston Hughes gay ?

NCD: It's up to the parents but we rate it PG13. There is no actual proof that Langston Hughes was gay, only speculation and conjecture. I was very adamant about keeping the aspect of the play ambiguous to respect his wishes. Two men or women can be friends without it being sexual - this play deals with kinship and connection. Rosa was developed to give the play that edge for those who wonder - she wonders, too. What I wanted to show was no matter what someone's sexual choices are - it is their work and contribution to society that matters.

BS: I'll be bringing my 6 and 9-year-old children. They may not understand some subtleties of it, but I think it's important they learn about the themes explored in the play. Was Langston Hughes gay? I don't know. Come see the play and then tell me if you think he was gay, and how much it matters one way or the other.

Q: What are the challenges, joys and reason for producing 99-seat theater? Is it really worth all the effort?

NCD: Money, Money and more money is the challenge - but it is worth all the effort - 99 seat theater allows us to be in the driver's seat and tell the stories we want to tell. The impact we have on audiences is far reaching and makes it worth the effort - which is huge!

Q: TST is a non-profit - how can someone get involved as a volunteer, intern, etc?

NCD: Call us at 213/624-4796 or email us at info@townestreet.org. We're ALWAYS in need of more people to help out.

Q: closing comments? Future plans for TST after this play closes?

NCD: Now in our 17th year - we are, as they used to say in the 60's 'keep on keeping on' - Our 12th Annual Musical Theater Camp for Kids is July 10-August 22. The 4th annual 10-minute play is in the fall and we are looking at choices for the 18th season.

BS: It's been an honor to be invited to be part of this process. I've learned so much about not only Langston Hughes and Nicol?s Guill?n, but also about myself, my preconceptions, my aesthetics, and the power of poetry to change lives.

Thank you for your time.

--------

story synopsis:
Havana, 1930. Young journalist Nicol?s Guill?n harbors dreams of becoming a poet. Langston Hughes visits Havana in search of a composer for a new opera. After Nicolas interviews Langston for a local newspaper, the two men inimitably bond. Langston's keen interest in black Cuban life impresses Nicol?s, who guides him to a vibrant Afro-Cuban club, uncorking an unquenchable thirst. Meanwhile, their union also profoundly empowers Nicol?s perhaps he can speak for black Cuba the same way that Langston is speaking for black America?

Hughes leaves Cuba, but their deep connection is kept alive through letters (to the discovery and disdain of Guill?n's wife). A fever dream inspires Guill?n to write poetry marrying the vernacular of contemporary black Cuba with the native musical style of Son (mirroring Hughes' poetic mesh of African-American vernacular and Blues music). The play explores their friendship over the next thirty years covering the Spanish War, the Cuban Revolution and the Civil Rights movement to Hughes' death in 1967. As with all friendships, theirs' is a tapestry woven of joy, conflict and demands from each other some that are met, some are not.

-----------------

for more info/ photos/ videos/ purchase tickets - visit: townestreet.org
email/ call: info@townestreet.org or 213/ 624-4796

"Langston & Nicol?s" - a new play by Bernardo Solano & Towne Street Theatre
April 2 - May 2, 2010 - Fri/ Sat 8PM & Sun 3PM - additional perfs. prior to May 2nd are pending
Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., LA 90028 - corner of Hollywood & Highland

produced/ commissioned by Towne Street Theatre & co-commissioned by Robey Theater Co.
DISCOUNTS: ANY union member & students w/ card, seniors & groups
INDUSTRY COMPS: casting/ Directors, producers, agents, studio/ production executives, etc
volunteers are also needed - ushers, marketing help, video production, etc.

A historical-based play on the 30-year friendship between iconic
African-American poet Langston Hughes & Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate Nicol?s Guillen
incorporated with poetry, music & dance. Many of the characters are based on real people.

Author's website




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