What I’ve been thinking about
“Everything here is driven by research, which creates its own kind of poetry.” -David Adjaye
Recently I’ve found the careful examination of the past creates surprising discoveries about language, character development and structure that moves me beyond my assumptions of the past, outside of my own imagination and into surprisingly fertile territory. For the last two years I’ve been drawing from historic artifacts as the inspiration for my new plays, One Night Only and the currently untitled Alamo Project.
One Night Only
Last year the director Natalie Novacek introduced me to the Magic and Houdini collections at The Harry Ransom Center. Combing through the boxes of letters, receipts, journal entries and press releases, I was struck by the intense amount of drive and control Houdini exhibited in the creation of his persona. Houdini’s early career started with his brothers and wife Bess on stage with him, later he dropped them both from the act, but kept them on tour and close. Houdini’s father was a rabbi and he was raised in a religious family, yet he is carefully ambiguous about his religion in his letters, even with close family. While Beck, his biggest manager in the United States, helped create the act that would make Houdini a household name, Houdini quickly dropped him and moved to Europe, on the gamble that he could make a bigger name for himself alone. Inherent in all these choices is a tension between family, religion, relationships and ambition.
One Night Only is a psychological study of the American immigrant rags to riches story, the structure is based on programs from Houdini’s show, but the audience’s investment in the play is deeply rooted in the making and cost of Houdini as a public persona.
The currently untitled Alamo project is a play with songs. Based on the siege and battle of the old mission and rooted in the music of the time, this play follows the women, children and slaves who survived the battle and made their lives in the shifting borders of the fledgling Mexican and United States governments.
The project follows three survivors of the siege: Susanna Dickinson, poor (white) from small town Tennessee, who had convinced her beau to elope to Texas where, she imagined, they could build a world of their own making. Juana Navarro, a well-to-do San Antonio native (of Mexican heritage) who, loyal to the fledgling Mexican government through family, was tied to Texas independence through marriage. Joe, William Travis’ black “house servant”, who found himself a slave in Texas, knowing full well that under Mexican rule slavery was illegal. All three were trapped in the mission by circumstances outside their control. All three were presented to Santa Anna as prisoners of war and given the opportunity to plead for the lives they wanted.
This play with songs riffs on the various uses of live music from the 1800’s. Santa Anna’s marching band was made up of musicians from all over Europe, South and Central America and from all walks of life. Inside the Alamo, Davy Crockett and John McGregor would compete, Crockett on fiddle and McGregor on bagpipes playing the ballads and folk tunes from Ireland, Scotland and England that developed into American bluegrass.
I am in the early phases of research and writing on this hybrid project. I know the story takes place in the Alamo just before the siege and in Santa Anna’s tent directly after. We suspect that the musical score, like the language, will be anachronistic, playing with “period” while also staying firmly rooted in the uses of music at the time. We imagine the music being used in the play as it would have in real life and not necessarily in the typical musical convention.