A play of mine called Strange Fruit has been long in development, with on-and-off again attempts at production, and a period of time when it looked like it wasn’t relevant. Oddly enough, thanks to the pandemic, it’s going to get a live streaming reading in two parts in August and September via Howlround Theatre Commons in Boston.
Part One happens 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 29th and you can watch it live and for free on the L.A. Writers Center Facebook page.
One of the co-producers, the Los Angeles Writers Center, asked me to explain how the play came about. Here is that explanation.
Intentionally epic: Creating Strange Fruit
The reason I wound up writing Strange Fruit in the first place is that the epic plays of the 1990s, like Cider House Rules, The Kentucky Cycle, and of course Angels in America, inspired me to think big. I wanted to do my own epic six- or eight-hour long play one day. I just couldn’t find the subject.
After Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, it brought homophobia to national attention, and also linked it to lynching, particularly those of Black people. After all, James Byrd had been dragged to death behind a truck almost exactly four months before Matthew Shepard was killed. Both men gave their names to the hate crimes act that Congress bravely and swiftly passed… eleven years later, and only after Barack Obama had taken office.
At first, my ambition was to just try to tell these two stories in a simple and non-epic way, but as I started to research, I came across the story of Mary Turner, which had occurred at the other end of the century, in the 1910s.
I had also always known that the song Strange Fruit was about lynching and wanted to work it into the story. What I hadn’t known is that Billie Holiday didn’t write it. Discovering the identity of the author and composer of that song naturally led me to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,
So I suddenly had stories about racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that spanned a century and I knew I had the framework for my epic. As a new century dawned, I started writing it.
As I got seriously into the research and writing, I was working at Dreamworks Animation, at their very lovely campus in Glendale. Since they provided free food to us daily, I never had to leave, so I’d spend my lunch hour either reading one of the myriad books I’d bought in order to help understand the characters, or would be furiously revising and editing the manuscript as it progressed.
What made it particularly ironic is that I was writing a story about such dark and hateful things while doing it in a location that was almost whimsical and really felt like being in some hidden European villa with its own lake, regular Friday noon “friends and family” BBQs, and at the center of it all a topiary of the Dreamworks logo known as “Moon Boy.”
At the same time, I brought the play in every week to Che’Rae Adams’ Monday Night LA Writer’s Center Advanced Writing Class, where my fellow playwrights would read small chunks out-loud and then offer feedback. This was instrumental in honing the piece, which wouldn’t exist without the support of LAWC, and especially of Che’Rae.
As I eventually finalized each of the four acts, LAWC had a series of staged readings in collaboration with the company at Syzygy Theatre Group, and they also played a huge role in helping me develop the characters.
One of the nice things for me about working with a fairly consistent group of actors and having the luxury of the same actor doing the same role as it progresses is that their unique talents and voices begin to inform those of my characters, and it becomes a feedback loop. This really helps each of those characters to become fully alive and distinctive. Actors aren’t just for show time, after all! They tweak the colors I put on my brush before I turn it to the canvas.
Since there was so much ground to cover in researching and creating the play, I learned a lot of interesting things along the way, although some of them are in the piece as surprises for the audience, like the background of one of the founders of the NAACP, and what happened to the Rosenberg children after they were executed — although you knew that last part.
One of the big surprise was how connected that composer of Strange Fruit was to multiple other characters. Interestingly, he’s actually the only character in the play that was actually alive across the lifetimes of almost every single character in it — 1903 to 1986. He did miss Oscar Wilde by a month shy of three years, but when he died Matthew Shepard was about a month shy of ten years old.
Learning more about Matthew was another revelation, because he wasn’t the pure little angel history turned him into when he died. Not that he was perverse monster, either. He was just a normal young adult with the same strengths and flaws as any other. There was also a lot of ambiguity about whether he actually knew his killers, which becomes one of the issues Matthew’s character has to deal with in the play.
Another fun fact: Another main character, who functions as a sort of Virgil to Matthew’s Dante, happened to die on Matthew’s 11th birthday. I picked him as a character for reasons that had nothing to do with that, though.
The play was set to be produced in the mid-‘00s, but then the project fell through, at least temporarily, or so we all hoped. And then, in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, we started to see things like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and it suddenly felt to me like, “Okay. This play isn’t relevant anymore.”
Although it was sad to see that it wouldn’t be produced, I still felt proud of the accomplishment. But when I thought that it would never need to be produced, I didn’t realize I could not have been more wrong, and so now here are, with Strange Fruit more relevant than ever.
That’s probably the biggest message I hope that people will take away from it: It’s very easy for a society to turn on a dime from tolerance to hatred, especially when the powers that be make it their mission to divide. It’s especially easy to let it happen when we try to pretend that it’s not.
Most importantly, the power is in our hands — each of us individually and all of us together — to stem the tide that ebbs towards bigotry and evil and instead raise that tide and, with it, the dignity, value, and acceptance of all other human beings, regardless of their differences.
Those differences, as the process of developing Strange Fruit reminds me constantly, are purely aesthetic. But our commonalities go as deep as our hearts and souls. We all want friends and family, love and acceptance, fulfillment and happiness.
Fortunately, there is plenty of all of those things to go around for everyone. We just have to see it and then accept it.