Playwright Marcus Gardley

Playwright Marcus Gardley loves words.  Here are some words:  prolific, eclectic, lauded, complex, charming, haunting, thoughtful, busy!

Marcus Gardley

Marcus Gardley

I first met Marcus Gardley last February at the Colorado New Play Summit after a staged reading of his play black odyssey – a play with music which is currently having its world premiere production in Denver a year later (and which I am looking forward to seeing in a few days).   As exciting as that is for Marcus Gardley, it is but the middle of a list of five world premieres, in multiple states, in a six month period! (And that is after having five produced plays already — see list at the end of this post. )

Last week I attended a Page to Stage playwright interview event at Berkeley Rep where he talked about his play The House That Will Not Stand, which was commissioned and developed through The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.  The play (opening tonight February 5 and running through March 16) is set in 1836 New Orleans,  and its characters live in the social convention of “placage” – where free Creole women of color entered into common-law marriages with affluent white men.

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In press materials, Gardley has said: “A lot of people don’t know about this history, and a lot of people do not know that African American women were millionaires. I wanted to expose and evaluate the culture and how African American women functioned in New Orleans society within the class system of that era. What’s powerful about the play and this time period is that you see all these questions about freedom coming together and clashing. It raises the notion of ‘what is freedom and can anyone be free?’ ”

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Ray Reinhardt and Lizan Mitchell in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “The House that will not Stand”
photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

During the playwright interview event, Gardley told us that, like many of his plays, this work was historically based and fused many elements and sources – specifically including “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Frederico Garcia Lorca and “The Feast of All Saints” by Anne Rice.  Add other plays, books, movies, music, stories, research – even the television series “Treme” and, in the wonderous mind of Marcus Gardley, a play is born. He explained that as he conceives and writes a play, he doesn’t hear voices so much as he hears spirits, and as he gets deeper into the writing process “they don’t shut up”.   Those spirits, the historical fragments, the source materials and other elements mix together.  It “feels like a gumbo”, he told us; by the time he was done, we all wanted a taste.

Marcus Gardley is widely described as a poet/playwright and his plays often include poetry and songs which blend dialogue between past and present.  The lyrics might be from the period, but Gardley will use contemporary music.  In  The House That Will Not Stand, dance and voodoo also play a significant part in the story.  Fusing elements, narrative styles and creating a cohesive whole out of past/present dichotomies might even be part of Gardley’s signature.  Black odyssey, for example, the tale of a U.S. soldier’s many-year journey home after serving in Afghanistan, is a modern take on Homer’s epic — mixing Greek mythology, African American culture and history, some wonderful songs (with lyrics by Gardley and music by Jaret Landon)  — and maybe some universal human truths as well.

 

Cleavant Derricks and Tony Todd in Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of black odyssey. Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen

Cleavant Derricks and Tony Todd in Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of black odyssey. Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen

Although known for his lyrical use of language and his imaginative scope, the meaning behind his plays is critical to Gardley.  “I’m an activist.  I wouldn’t do it if [my work] didn’t cause a spark for positive change in the world.” Explaining his “activist” nature, he told us that one of his earliest playwriting efforts at San Francisco State was a play about homelessness where he locked the audience in the theatre, together with bags of rotting garbage, for the authentic sensory experience. He received some insightful and constructive feedback from a professor who told him that he understood what he was trying to do, but it just wasn’t working and he needed to find another way.  He has. And it’s working.

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In addition to several workshops, in the six month period September 2013 to February 2014 Marcus Gardley had or will have five world premiere plays in production in different states: September 2013 the road weeps, the well runs dry [Lark Development Center program: Minneapolis, Juneau, Los Angeles], October 2013 dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory [Center Stage Baltimore], January 2014 black odyssey [Denver Center], January 2014 The House That Will Not Stand [Berkeley Rep] Feb. 2014 The Gospel of Lovingkindness [Victory Gardens Theatre Chicago].  His previously produced plays include Every Tongue Confess at Arena Stage,  On the Levee at Lincoln Center, and, in the Bay Area:  And Jesus moonwalks the Mississippi at Cutting Ball Theatre in San Francisco, and This World in a Woman’s Hands and Love is a Dream House in Lorin at Shotgun Players. Whew.

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