An Overview and Brief Interview Regarding
Pity The Proud Ones
By Kurt Dana Maxey
To discuss the journey of Pity The Proud Ones would be a task worthy of Homer. The original idea for the play dates back to about nine years ago. Yes, that long. I can personally recall directing a thirty page Scene One Act One reading when I was a member of the Los Angeles Theater Center’s Wordsmyths playwriting group. I always believed in the basic story I was trying to tell. That doesn’t mean changes didn’t occur. Writing a play is a continual process of writing and re-writing. Playwriting is striving for perfections that might not exist. Since man is not perfect, how can we expect such for a play? What is viewed as a universal truth by one person might not be seen that way by another. Let me be perfectly clear about one thing: it is the playwright’s responsibility to affect the hearts and minds of his audience. They must leave the theater feeling something. So, let’s jump to the chase!
When I got into the Robey Theatre Playwright Program, it was divided into morning and afternoon sessions. The morning session was taught by Aaron Henne. Participants consisted of writers wanting to learn about playwriting and newly declared playwrights who yearned to hone their craft vis-à-vis writing exercises developed by Aaron. These exercises focused on such things as dialogue, character development, situation, and various double-dingers designed to loosen the flow of your writing. In Aaron’s class, the drink of choice was coffee. The afternoon session conducted by Dylan Southard, dramaturge, focused on the re-examination of a competed play with the eventual goal of having the playwright’s work read. Once a play is completed, its style, tone, plotting, and premise must be examined as closely as possible. More re-writing would then follow. In Dylan’s class the drink of choice was either the Monster or Red Bull. A session covers about ten weeks. There are three sessions per year. Trust me when I tell you that the playwright is probably writing more than thirty weeks during the year. This is evident in the success of the program. Plays are being written and performed on the stage.
The first reading I had of Pity The Proud Ones was during the 2007-2008 session. The play was 130 pages long. It took about two and one half hours to read the play. It meandered like a long and wide river. It almost put me to sleep. The story was about a mulatto son trying to collect wages from his Irish-American father. It was about how money is not the panacea for taking care of everything. There was a hurricane coming into town. There were subtexts of fathers and sons, lovers and ex-lovers, money, racism, and slavery. Yet it was obvious that the play needed to be cut. I wanted the play to move swiftly with suspense, mystery, and how the cancerous effects of racism and slavery clashes against the fact that we all are created equal.
I wanted the play to have a film noir quality to it, in order to keep the audience guessing. After useful discussions with Ben Guillory and Dylan Southard, I decided to cut the play by an hour. Long speeches and monologues would be kept to a minimum. Don’t try to explain everything. Write from your gut and let the chips fall as they may. Force the audience to get involved. Throughout all the sessions I have attended, my writing was generally described as being terse, to the point, “Pinteresque,”and layered. It is also sometimes elliptical. The play would be written using the aforementioned styles. Ben Guillory had made a commitment to produce the play. My Working with him has been an honor.
On January 30, 2011 Pity The Proud Ones was read in front of an audience as part of the LATC Playwrights Festival. The reading was approximately one and one half hours long. The tension of an approaching hurricane could be felt. I was surprised by how well Pity was received. The audience was highly receptive to the thematic idea that when a person is consumed with too much pride and anger, he limits his chances of having a fruitful life. I got positive feedback regarding the Irish father and his mulatto son, and the father ex-lover relationship. Many of the audience members were taken aback by the fact that the English had transported thousands of Irish men, women, and children to the island of Barbados as indentured servants and slaves. Some folks had forgotten that once upon a time there were white slaves. The play was designed to lean towards melodrama and psychological conflict. I had to keep attuned to my desire to maintain the play from being overloaded with too much historical and sociological exposition. Work needed to be done with two of my five characters: Ella and Pettigrew. They weren’t as multi-dimensional as I wanted them to be. I don’t care for stereotypes. The next month I started re-writing the play.
This re-write took four months to complete. All the characters became alive. I knew them as if they were members of my family. The Afro-American characters are survivors who want to improve their economic status. They are masters of their own fate. The play also shows that the divide between the black man and white man might not be as wide as we might think; when placed within the context of English and Irish history.
The last performance of Pity The Proud Ones was on November 13, 2011. As I was walking out of Theater 4, I was approached by a young woman with a tape recorder. She expressed her admiration and excitement for the play and requested a quick interview. A few weeks later she sent me a transcript. Instead of using the transcript, I have decided to give myself a brief interview.
1. What surprised you most about the production of the play? I was overwhelmed by Miguel Montalvo’s Set Design, Alex Cohen’s Lighting, Kimberly Wilson’s Sound Design, and the costumes created by Naila A Sanders. I cannot describe the hard work, professionalism, enthusiasm, and dedication given by the cast and crew on this production. It was a team effort straight down the line.
2. How important is casting? If your play is the ship, then the cast is the engine to the ship. Casting is an intuitive process that shouldn’t be looked upon lightly. If possible, it must not be rushed. Ben Guillory’s casting of the play was superlative. It’s like working on a picture puzzle. Casting is an art form onto itself.
3. How about the acting? The actors approached character development in their own particular way. It was my impression that Ben permitted a sufficient amount of input from the actors to develop individual entities for the audience to behold. We saw people who had to be reckoned with, men and women with goals to obtain and obstacles’ to overcome. The stellar cast of Dorian Christian Baucum, Ben Jurand, Staci Mitchell, Caroline Morahan, and Darrell Philip was fantastic.
I would like to offer a thanks to my fellow playwrights: Kimba Henderson, Melvin Johnson, Leonard Manzelo and Kellie Roberts. Your kindness, love and support has been deeply appreciated. The support received by Judith Bowman, Aaron Henne, and Dylan Southard was phenomenal.
On several occasions audience members would approach me and say that they had difficulty liking some of the characters. So did I, but I do believe that we did get to witness some of the “better angels of our nature.”