The Red Curtain

A new play, "Project 891", puts the spotlight on New Deal theater, HUAC, and the mother of all arts-funding debates.

As is often the case with such large (and unpaid) casts, the many artistic commitments of the actors have made for a scheduling nightmare. For the Wednesday night rehearsal eight days before opening, Turiskylie and Anderson determine that the full cast must be present for the first time. In the day running up to this rehearsal, Alex Cole, who plays Works Progress Administration creator Harry Hopkins, is bumped from several flights as he tries to fly back from sitcom auditions in L.A. And cast member Tim Mitchell suffers massive chest pains at work Wednesday afternoon, and the paramedics come. He leaves the emergency room without a diagnosis, though, in order to sneak off to rehearsal. (Mitchell, who works as a comic, has other issues with federal support of its citizens--like health insurance.)

The protagonists of Turiskylie's script are Orson Welles (Raine Hokan) and Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan (Jennifer Kirkeby), and as the play--and history--casts them, their motivations in shaping the FTP are diametrically opposed. Flanagan toiled out of a fundamental belief in theater's power to educate and inspire. She dreamed of establishing a national theater that would survive well after the funding stopped. Welles toiled out of a fundamental belief in his own power to do, well, anything. He dreamed of establishing himself as a deity whose name and reputation would last long after his life stopped.

Hallie Flanagan was considered one of the brightest young experimental-theater minds in the country when she accepted the job of director of the FTP. Her background included a 1927-28 Guggenheim fellowship to study comparative methods of theater in England, Ireland, Scandinavia, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. She ideated a theater that would not just entertain, but inform, not just employ, but educate and inspire. Perhaps if audiences saw the conditions of the tenements, she thought, they would be inspired to do something about them. In a late-'30s essay, "Democracy and Drama," Flanagan wrote:

The Federal Theatre is a pioneer theatre because it is part of a tremendous re-thinking, re-building, and re-dreaming of America... These activities represent the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair, and at the same time against selfishness, special privilege and social apathy. And in the struggle for a better life, our actors know what they are talking about; the Federal Theatre, being their theatre, becomes not merely a decoration but a vital force in our democracy.

Because of Flanagan's influence, the drama of the FTP became what producer John Houseman called "the liveliest, most innovative, and most original theatre of its era." It introduced the abstract political expression of Brecht and Meyerhold's Europe to the United States--an introduction that was essential to the experimental theater revolution in the 1960s. At the same time, FTP productions faced constant scrutiny from anti-communist watchdogs and anti-Roosevelt senators determined to protect the interest of the almighty taxpayer (or die grandstanding).

One of the most scrutinized and most successful of the productions, and the focus of the first act of Project 891, introduced a 20-year-old Orson Welles to New York and to the country. Welles was brought on by John Houseman to direct the New York Negro Theatre. (Black and white leaders alike considered it essential that white men assume the leadership of the nascent Negro Theatres; given the position of blacks in the theater at the time, it was believed the establishment wouldn't take black directors and producers seriously.) Welles proposed for his first effort an all-black Macbeth set in Haiti, a "voodoo" Macbeth as it would soon be known.

Turiskylie juxtaposes the trying conditions of unemployed black actors with images of the happily employed white actors playing Amos and Andy on the radio. (AMOS: I can't vote fo' no Republican Andy. De republicans ain't never done nuthin' fo' me.) So, too, her script offers apt examples of what parts these actors were typically allowed to play. When an actor named Larry Blake comes in to audition, he tells Welles and Houseman, "I used to be half of a vaudeville team. Blake and Brooster. Song, Dance and Snappy Patter...I do a great Stepin Fetchit, 'Hun-ah, wu you read dis her' letter fo' me--Ahm so tired from sittin' her' all day.'" When Orson asks him to read for the part of the porter, Larry jokes, "Porter. I've played so many porters the railroad sent me a union card."

At the time, it was unheard of for black actors to play in the classics--which were thought of as "white plays." So Flanagan was thrilled with the idea of a Harlem Macbeth, as were the black actors queued around the block to audition. Yet Welles was not universally celebrated for his efforts, even by seeming allies on the left. The Negro Communist Party in New York condemned the production, dismissing this Macbeth as another minstrel show, a white man's plan to make blacks look foolish by having them recite a drama they've never staged. Early in the rehearsals, Welles was physically attacked by an angry group assumed to be from the Party. Regardless of (or perhaps thanks to) criticism from extremists from both wings, 10,000 people came to see Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre on opening night. Project 891 uses sound effects and a harried news reporter to try to capture the feel:

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