"Chasing Heaven" Chases the Question of Who Writes History
Mr. Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
The fifteenth annual Fringe Festival, with over 200 plays in various theaters, opened in New York last weekend for a two week stay and with it came more than two dozen history plays. They range from the stories of 1930s Hollywood stars to 1970s wars in the Middle East to 1920s robberies to 1940s film noir plots and even a show about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. You want to go all the way back to creation? There’s a play about that, too. The festival has something about history for everybody. It is one of several dozen Fringe Festivals in the U.S. and Europe. HNN caught several plays at the New York festival. Here is a review of the first.
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Who writes history?
Historians today produce an endless number of books about people they never met who lived a hundred years before they were born in places they never visited. How do we know that they got the story right?
That is the question of Chasing Heaven, one of the history plays in this year’s Fringe Festival, in New York, that opened Saturday. The play is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winner who is asked to re-write a Porgy and Bess like black folk opera from the 1930s that became a musical and cultural masterpiece. She wants to update it and to do so plans to drop legendary characters and change the colorful, local southern black dialect of the play that she thinks is cartoonish. Is she right to do that?
The answer evolves as the play progresses. The drama, by Leah Maddrie, is a fascinating look at how historians work. The story is based very loosely on the true history of Porgy and Bess and studies the research that George and Ira Gershwin did in South Carolina to write the celebrated musical.
Ironically, a new Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, director by Diane Paulus, is scheduled to open this season and it is the center of controversy because a new writer, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzanne Lori-Parks, has been hired to rewrite the story and some of the dialect and work with the director to change parts of the presentation. That has caused a storm of controversy among theater purists. Chasing Heaven, that Maddrie started to write five years ago, is a behind-the-scenes look at similar tumult.
In the play, Pulitzer Prize winner Kinshasha Morton is down on her luck. She has not had a best selling book in years and sees the re-writing of Josh Gerwitz’s classic Chasing Heaven opera as a chance to regain fame. She plunges into the rewrite and, along the way, encounters the ghosts of composer Gerwitz and others, who defend the way the play was originally written.
As she works, Kinshasha meets the ghost of a young black anthropologist, Lolly, who was the ‘silent partner’ with Gerwitz when he wrote his play, contributing a black view and authentic cultural material to the story that Gerwitz, a white writer from New York, could never know, despite two lengthy visits to South Carolina to do research.
The play’s premise is that Gerwitz wrote such a good play because Lolly helped him and got no credit but, at the same time, Gerwitz ignored many suggestions by Lolly and wrote a play that was not authentic and overly simplified people. Is it right, then, to make it authentic based on what we know today about black culture then? Or, is it wrong to rewrite a play today, bringing contemporary views into a work written seventy years ago based on the lives of people who lived in another time?
The conflict is turned into a rather interesting drama of Maddrie. The ghost of Gerwitz, a feisty composer, argues with Kinshasha that it was his play and that he did not accept Lolly’s help. What he wrote then, he charges, was a correct view of the lives of the Gullah blacks of South Carolina. He stands by his play. Lolly offers a different story when she appears to Kinshasha. The curator, or narrator, gives yet another, compromising view of the history to the audience. The play is full of arguments and emotion. Some of the characters are presented as they appeared to Gerwitz in 1936, dialects firmly in place. Others appear to mock the dialects. Some charge that the real history that Gerwitz wrote in his opera shows African Americans as simpletons and makes fun of them and must be changed. Others argue that you can’t change history. There is also the charge that in 1936 black writers had no chance to write operas, but the famous white Gershwins certainly could.
Maddrie, who also directs the play, does a wonderful job of utilizing the stories of her many characters. She opens the play in 1955, when Gerwitz died, and then goes back and forth between 2011 and 1936 without confusing the audience. The play centers on the question of who writes history, but it tumbles out on stage as an interesting story with a lot of clashes.
Director Maddrie gets fine performances from Linda Kuriloff as Lolly, Dan Carlton as the curator, Greg Horton as Gerwitz and Christine Campbell as Kinshasha.
There are drawbacks to the play. The performers are good but not as sophisticated as they should be to not only act, but argue history. After a few weeks on stage, they will be better. The Fringe Festival is famous for its sparse sets, but this set is sparse. It consists of a few chairs and not much more. They couldn’t spend another $20?
I bumped into Dr. Trevor Weston, the dramaturg of the play, who shrugged his shoulders about who wrote what in the story. “I think we all need to think about how much complete history a writer can get in a six or seven week visit to a place he had never been to before. Gerwitz, here, and George Gershwin, are from entirely different cultures from the African Americans of South Carolina, so how can they really ‘get it.’ Or, given the great skills of writers and historians, do they indeed understand all of that cultural history and put it into their work? That’s what the play is about and what history is about,” he said.
The play runs for two weeks. Anybody who sees it will be pleased by the performance and engaged by the historical argument.
PRODUCTION Produced by the Fringe Festival and the Middle Middle Ensemble. Stage manager: Diana Sheivprasad, Associate Producer: Dottie Jeffries, Dramaturg: Dr. Trevor Weston, Technical Advisor: Dennis Gagomiros.
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