(Photo: Garland Lee Thompson, Sr.; Garland Lee Thompson, Jr.; Alicia Payne; Donald Molnar – Readers’ Theatre of New Works at the National Black Theatre Festival. This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)
When I was little my mother taught me how to cross the road. Look both ways then look again. Walk fast, don’t dawdle and don’t get hit by a car, bus or anything else on wheels. How come simple rules like that don’t exist when you’re a playwright crossing borders? And so it goes with one of my current projects, Justice for Maurice Henry Carter, co-written with Donald Molnar. We’re Canadian, so to swim in the American production pool we have several borders to navigate. And we wanna go splash, not splat.
We leapfrogged over the “What should I write about?” border when this story landed on our lap. Don’s lap actually. We were at a birthday party in Toronto when an American told Don about Maurice Carter, who spent over 29 years in prison for something he didn’t do. The real story is the enduring friendship between two men, one black, one white, who became brothers while fighting for Maurice’s freedom. One of the things that helped buoy Maurice’s spirit in prison was his love of Gospel music. I happened to be singing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, which celebrates all kinds of AfroCentric music, so Don called me over. I too was moved by the story and Don suggested that we collaborate and turn it into a play. Was it a coincidence that I was about to tour with the Chorale and that one of our stops was Calvin College in Michigan? Doug Tjapkes, a driving force behind Maurice’s struggle for freedom, lived in Michigan and agreed to meet me for lunch. We became fast friends and he said yes to Don and me writing the play about his incredible friendship with Maurice. Obsidian Theatre Company in Toronto recommended me for Theatre Creators’ Reserve grants that enabled me to go to Michigan with Don to research the story.
Doug is the founder of a Michigan-based charitable organization called Humanity for Prisoners. His advocacy work led to an invitation to an Innocence Network Conference in Houston, Texas, where an excerpt reading of the play was followed by a panel discussion. The annual Conference crosses state borders from year to year and the Network membership transcends international boundaries.
The great thing about crossing a border the first time is that it sometimes leads to other crossings. An excerpt reading and panel discussion at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids followed our positive experience in Texas. Eventually, the excerpt readings turned into staged readings at Calvin College, Western Michigan University, and even one that served as a fundraiser for the Hawaii Innocence Project at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Would any of these have happened if we hadn’t crossed any or all of the borders that came before?
Our most recent crossing led to a wonderful experience at the 2013 Readers’ Theatre of New Works at the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) in North Carolina. While as playwrights we often lament rejections, there are times when acceptances also come with a few “What do I do now?” moments. Having never been to the NBTF we didn’t know what to expect. It was fun, it was fabulous, and a truly perception-changing experience. The Readers’ Theatre format is not for the faint of heart and the thrills are palpable. Once accepted, for your reading to actually take place you have to physically be there. Once there, you pull your team together from a list of actors and directors who have signed up at the Conference. It was like speed dating for playwrights, directors and actors. It’s one of the ways the festival breaks down borders that sometimes prevent artists from working with people they don’t already know. We met and worked with wonderful people that we would love to work with again. And the libation ceremony that closed the Festival is truly something to experience.
Though I’m still not sure how many more crossings are left before we get to swim in the American production pool, I’m appreciating the journey, the view and the wonderful people we’ve been meeting along the way. You can follow our adventures on our website.
If you’re holding back because you don’t know what’s on the other side of whatever threshold you’re at, there’s a way to find out. Whether you exercise caution or throw it to the wind, take another leap of faith and dive into the unknown.
Alicia Payne is a professional actor, published writer and artist educator whose credits encompass theatre, film, television and radio. Her professional memberships include ACTRA, CAEA, Dramatists Guild of America and Playwrights Guild of Canada. She is a co-founder of Arbez Drama Projects, a playwright-driven not-for-profit theatre company. A reading of Justice for Maurice Henry Carter, co-written with Donald Molnar, was part of the Readers’ Theatre of New Works at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.