Theatre has always been about the telling of stories. I often relate the role of the actor to that of the griot, sometimes referred to as the cultural guardian. The theater has always been a communal space where our minds and spirits get lifted, and where our shared experiences are examined and celebrated in an effort to bring us closer to one another while becoming attuned to the spirit of life.
Literature and theatre are not “strange bedfellows”. It is a fertile resource of stories yet to be performed. There are plenty of novelists and poets who linger in obscurity, and having their work performed on the stage is one way of generating interest in the reading of their material. I was first introduced to the idea of doing adaptations, as a practice, as an undergraduate student at Rutgers State University of New Jersey in 1979. I was cast in a production of Richard Wright’s play, The Long Dream directed by Avery Brooks. This was my introduction to Richard Wright, and, after reading the novel that this play was adapted from, I was hooked.
In 1981 I co-founded and was co-artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company of Newark, NJ. As a company, one of our missions was to pursue the idea adaptations of literature for the stage, and we knew that the work of Richard Wright would be high on the list. So, in the early 80’s we contacted Ellen Wright, Richard Wright’s widow, and was granted permission to adapt to the stage Uncle Tom’s Children.
In 2005 I was granted permission by Julia Wright, Richard Wright’s daughter, to adapt Fire and Cloud and directed it as my Thesis production. What startled me the most in the realization of this project was coming into contact with so many students who had not read the works of this literary genius. I accepted in this moment that part of my mission as an educator would be to expose as many as I could to his material. As a theatre artist, I naturally chose as my venue, the stage and decided to undertake a solo performance piece comprised to bring to theatrical life Mr. Wright’s words.
I decided that I wanted to begin with adapting and performing The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, Down by the Riverside and Fire and Cloud. I had the immense pleasure of meeting Julia at a Richard Wright Conference in Philadelphia, PA. I shared with her recordings of some of the work that I had done already, and we had a chance to sit down and talk about my intentions. She granted me permission to proceed with the adaptation, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she felt that a more suitable story than Fire and Cloud would me The Man Who Saw the Flood.
So, here we are with The Man Who Saw the Flood, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow and Down by the Riverside. All, just as relevant now as they were when they were originally written, and all are a testament to the truly staggering talent of one of our most prolific writers. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be doing this in recognition of the timeless relevance of his work.
The Journey of Performing Richard Wright
Reginald c. Brown
Actor - Director - Educator
SOLO PERFORMANCE PIECE
PERFORMING RICHARD WRIGHT
African American writer and activist Richard Wright, born September 4, 1908 – and a native son of the Delta – became famous with his boundary-breaking bestseller Native Son. He came of age on Beale Street, as he discusses in his critically acclaimed memoir, Black Boy, detailing his struggles to escape poverty, fear, and racism in the segregated south. Wright went on to explore these themes in his writing after he moved north to Chicago and then lived in exile in Paris, which became home base as he reported on Third World struggles in the era of decolonization, before his premature death on November 28, 1960.
In Performing Richard Wright, a 1-hour theatrical presentation, University of Memphis professor, and professional actor, Reginald C. Brown brings to the stage three of Wright’s dramatic short stories: “The Man Who Saw the Flood”, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and “Down by the Riverside”. In 2005 Professor Brown was granted permission by Julia Wright, Richard Wright’s daughter, to adapt Fire and Cloud at Virginia Commonwealth University. While directing this performance project, he was astounded that so many students had not read the works of this literary genius. Professor Brown determined that part of his mission as an educator and theatre artist would be to expose as many people as he could the words of Richard Wright. “Theatre has always been about the telling of stories,” says Professor Brown, “I often relate the role of the actor to that of the griot, sometimes referred to as the cultural guardian. The theater has always been a communal space where our minds and spirits get lifted, and where our shared experiences are examined and celebrated in an effort to bring us closer to one another while becoming attuned to the spirit of life.”
“Reggie’s affiliation with Julia Wright has yielded a unique, powerful interpretation of her father’s writings,” notes director, Teresa Morrow. “Audience members have expressed new and profound connections to the work of Richard Wright.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the stories explored in Performing Richard Wright reflect the echoes of devastation from an earlier historic flood. All, just as relevant now as they were when they were originally written, and all are a testament to the truly staggering talent of one of our most inspirational writers.