Volunteer Andrea interviews playwright Tazewell Thompson, author of Mary T. and Lizzy K., currently at Arena Stage.
Andrea: How did you decide what to focus on in Mary T. and Lizzy K., your play about the friendship between a famous First Lady and a successful modiste who was also a former slave?
Tazewell Thompson: I was commissioned in 2001 by Molly Smith of Arena Stage to write a play. The only stipulation/caveat was that the play take place in Washington, DC. I thought political right away, rather than domestic and/or contemporary and inner city life as a genre. At first my focus was going to be on the sixteenth President of the United States: Abraham Lincoln—the men who entered into and influenced his life from early childhood in the western frontier of Kentucky; his mostly self-educated days and nights as a young country lawyer; his ambitious rise as a clever and witty debater; his associates, friends and partners; and the men in his cabinet. Only my very extensive and busy schedule as a director of opera and theater prevented me from getting anything on paper or even involving myself in deep research or cursory reading on my leading player for a very long time. As I began to delve into books on Lincoln, a footnote began to appear over and over: Elizabeth Keckly. Lizzy Keckly’s name was always associated with Mary Todd Lincoln. I finally followed directions on several footnotes: see Keckly’s Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. After reading Lizzy’s memoir, I knew that my emotional cause for a subject that could be stage-worthy lay in the lives of Lizzy K. & Mary T. and what they meant to each other.
Andrea: What were you most concerned about getting right in the production?
Tazewell Thompson: I am far from being a historian or professional biographer. I am not even an amateur sleuth of documentary drama or an essayist of the public or private lives of anybody—infamous or famous. What I am is a man of the theatre: a director, actor and teacher of the theatre. I’ve written one play that has had over 14 productions and has garnered numerous awards; two adaptations and I have three more playwriting commissions. My concern was not historical or even biographical accuracy. The concern was remaining true to my voice and my love of language. My early influences and first love in the theatre, the writers: Shakespeare, Euripides, Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, James Baldwin, Brecht, Thornton Wilder, Edna St. Vincent Millay and others. These authors gave me an early fascination of words crackling in the air. Of language having the possibility to reach out and grab the listener, suck them in and impact the hearer in a very profound and emotionally unforgettable way. I wanted to honor always and remain sincere to my inner voice of loving language from the mouths of actors
Andrea: How did you know you wanted to be a playwright?
Tazewell Thompson: I didn’t know. It came to me out of a necessity to see aspects of African-American life explored on the stage from the lives of those either forgotten or of those not even recognized or known.
Andrea: What was your journey like to get your first play into production?
Tazewell Thompson: I was commissioned in 1998 by distinguished professor and biographer, Milly S. Barranger, then Artistic Director of Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She recognized something of the writer in me. She had a Paul Green grant. She wanted me to have financial support to find the time to write a play for her theatre. She was the catalyst to spark and unearth in me a long held and delayed passion for writing, in general, and for the stage, in particular. It was a tough and grueling journey because of my directing schedule. However, my protagonist, Ida B. Wells, was the carrot that kept me moving forward. After countless rewrites, the play had its premiere in the 1999-2000 season. Since the premiere in Chapel Hill, Constant Star has had over 14 major productions in theaters across the country. It has also garnered me three important playwriting commissions.
Andrea: Do you have any advice for budding playwrights?
Tazewell Thompson: Read plays. Read all kinds of plays. See theatre as often as possible. See professional theatre, amateur, stock and school plays. Be in a play. Work crew in a production of a play. Assist a playwright. Write in a journal. Write anything and everything down. Listen. Listen to voices in the everyday routine of your life. Read. Write. Read. Read. Write. Read.
Tazewell Thompson (Playwright/Director), who, since 1988, was an artistic associate and resident director under Zelda Fichandler and then with Doug Wager, and now as a guest artist with Molly Smith, has directed close to two dozen productions at Arena Stage, including Caucasian Chalk Circle, Playboy of the West Indies, Glass Menagerie, Fences, Bloodknot, M. Butterfly, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, On the Verge, Yellowman and his own play, Constant Star. He has directed numerous productions in theaters across the country, including several world and American premieres. His international opera credits in select cities include work in Milan, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, directing Carmen, Death in Venice, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Norma, Patience, The Tender Land, Street Scene, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Giovanni, The Second Hurricane and Pearl Fishers. His New York City Opera production of Porgy and Bess received Emmy nominations for Best Director and Best Classical production. Most recently, he directed Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars for Cape Town Opera and Glimmerglass Festival.