The Show Must Go On

Marsha Jones is a writer and friend of mine from way, way, way back. Despite the fact that she’s up to her eyeballs in production work as she prepares for the premiere of her play, she offered to write this illuminating piece on the creative process and how a writer’s work is apparently never done.

By Marsha Jones

As I write this, I am preparing to direct the debut of my play, “Win…Win,” as part of the Sankofa Evening of Theatre & Jazz.

Based on my novel of the same name, I wrote a play that originally featured two male actors. “Win…Win” now features one male and one female actor – the female actor being me. That wasn’t my original plan. I really wanted to bring to the stage a man’s honest point of view about relationships and dating.

Why don’t I just do open heart surgery on myself? It would certainly be less stressful. Remembering my lines? I should know this right? Wrong. When I write lines for anyone else, I can always remember what they’re supposed to say. In addition to memorizing the words I’ve written, I have to remember when I’m supposed to speak them. I have to be responsible for the props at the same time I’m responsible for wondering if the actors could say his line better. My mind is everywhere but where it needs to be. I have a vision in my head and I’m just trying to get us there.

So how did I get here? Believe it or not, I got here on a dare. A friend of mine, Lais Morgan, suggested that I try my hand at playwriting a few years ago. She said as a writer of books it would be easy for me because playwriting involves mostly scripting dialogue and I already do that. After a bit of nagging, I agreed to enter a playwriting competition sponsored by Mood Makers Books. I decided to adapt my book, “Win…Win” into a play. The novel is about love and relationships set in the world of semi-professional football. The story asks if a man and a woman can be friends if they’ve been lovers. In researching my book, I had interviewed forty men of different ages. I got them to speak about the women “who got away” and to reveal what made these women so memorable. Their answers surprised and I loved what they added to the book.

I knew that adapting the book into a play (even when the book is my own) was going to be difficult, but a few months later, I had done it. Once I’d submitted the play, however, I forgot about it, never thinking it would be selected. But it was.

Curtis Rivers, the Director of the Sankofa Festival contacted me and said my play was one of six that had been selected. Each play would be limited to 30-40 minutes. My first challenge was to condense what I’d already written into an even more compact package. I had to get out a lot of information, while keeping the action lively and allotting time for laughter and audience response. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

I learned the hard way that your script is never finished. I constantly asked myself would a guy say it that way? Would he react that way? What should he wear in that scene? I made changes and then stopped…finally. The writing was done – or so I thought.

I was informed that I could only use only two actors in my play. That was a problem because my book featured four characters. I wasn’t happy and it took some work, but I managed to retell the story featuring only two men. I was deep in the male mind zone and by the time I was done with my rewrite, I was proud because I felt that the male point-of-view rang true. And then I got my second shock: one of my male actors had to drop out because of a conflict. It’s not what I wanted to hear.

With no other actors available at such short notice, I found myself having to re-write the script yet again. Removing a male voice and adding a female voice was a challenge. After reading my revised play, Curtis said he liked my new rewrite and he gave me his blessing to move forward.

Now, I’m just learning my lines and directing myself and another actor through our scenes. Come Saturday, I’ll get to show people what I have been doing and in a few weeks I’ll do it again with yet another revised script. However, I’m looking forward to being a retired actor. I prefer seeing the stage from wings.

(Editor’s note: Marsha Jones is one of six MMBP Series Scholars. Her new book, Pin Pals is out November 1st. Currently, she is working on next year’s play, Love Begins With Truth.)

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Doing the Work

At the start of every semester, I ask my students to name a favorite film and then I ask them to identify what makes that particular film so special. I do this because I want them to learn to analyze stories beyond simply saying, “I like it” or “It sucked.”

This semester, one of my students answered the question by not quite answering it. Instead of giving the title of a film, he said his favorite film was any film that got made.

That answer only makes sense if you understood who the student was. The student is a filmmaker who has worked on numerous film projects and fully understands that making film is, as the saying goes, “more than a notion.”

Only from the outside does making a movie look glamorous, cool or sexy. It’s none of those things. Filmmaking is work – and that work is hard. It’s hard to write a script. It’s hard to produce a film. It’s hard to direct a film and it’s hard to get people to watch a film. And on top of all of that, if you also aspire to make a film that happens to be great, everything hard becomes harder.

I recently watched Courtney Hunt’s film, Frozen River and immediately fell in love with it. I was impressed with the story, the direction, the acting, everything. However, when I read an article in which Ms. Hunt explained how the story made its way to becoming a film that won Best Feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, I was even more impressed. That she as a storyteller had to push herself to write the script, make a short film version, shop for investors, shoot the film and then market it, speaks to how badly she wanted it – and how difficult the process is.

The students in my Video Production & Storytelling class recently experienced the difficulties involved in putting their stories on the screen. I’ve seen them work hard at structuring their stories, casting the actors, choosing locations, shooting the scenes, and editing. Yes, I suppose you could say that they did the work because doing the work was their assignment, but once you take a look at their finished films, you’ll see that something greater than a grade motivated them to do the work. Check out Stephanie Centeno’s The List, Jennifer Hall’s Waiting for Jo and Adam Hudson’s The Deal.

Even if I didn’t witness the sweat and tears involved in making these impressive short films, I would still love them (blood may have been involved as well, but I’m grateful that I didn’t see any). Stephanie, Jennifer and Adam demonstrate that storytelling is hard work, but that good stories are worth the work.

And I have to agree with my student: I think that any filmmaker who does the work and gets his or her film made deserves a standing ovation.

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Without question, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s not just one of my favorite documentaries; it’s one of my favorite films, period. That film tells a story that has thrilled me, chilled me, and made me want to take that ride again and again.

Errol Morris certainly doesn’t need me to expound on how brilliant he is (his awesome body of work speaks for itself), but The Thin Blue Line was the first documentary I experienced as a story (prior to that, documentaries tended to taste like medicine to me). All the elements were there: ominous beginning, exhilarating middle and a gasp-inducing ending. A terrific Philip Glass score didn’t hurt, either. But another thing that made the film so powerful was that it revealed something significant.

The Thin Blue Line told a story that shed light where there was darkness. I’m sorry, that sounded a little preachy. What I meant to say is that the film forced its viewers to see something that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise (among the many things it illuminated was how the legal system works – and how it doesn’t). Because of that film, I’ve become convinced that all great stories should be in the business of revealing something. Revelation is an important and undervalued part of telling stories.

Although I can’t take credit for it, my film students have grasped the importance of this light-shedding. In my Storytelling and Video Production class, my students were given the assignment to create documentary portraits and I was pleased to see what they chose to reveal.

Mallory Wade’s film, A Picture at a Time, is a self-portrait of the filmmaker; Gabrielle Powell’s Born Uniquely Able is a portrait of her mother; Stephanie Centeno’s The Garcias, is a portrait of her grandparents; and Jennifer Hall’s “The Beautiful Struggle” is a portrait of her sister. More than simply being impressive first films, these documentaries tell their stories by revealing information not apparent on the surface. All four filmmakers have carefully selected what they wanted to share, artfully peeling back layers of their subjects in order to show their audiences something of significance.

In a lecture discussing his book Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris spoke about the significant and surprising things he revealed in The Thin Blue Line – and the unforeseen consequences (both good and bad) that came from those revelations. Perhaps I should have warned my students that shining light in dark places doesn’t always make us feel good. Oftentimes, light shows us things we didn’t really want to see.

Link for The Beautiful Struggle

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For Colored Boys Who Have Considered “for colored girls…”

In 2009, I was asked to contribute an essay to the 2009 Writers Guild of America East Awards book. The theme was “Provoking Thought: Words That Made a Difference” and I decided to write about words that have never lost their power to turn me inside out. 

When I was a freshman in college, I was involved in a theater group called The New Directional Players. Our director announced that we were going to put on a production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. I nodded knowingly, pretending that I was familiar with the play because, well, pretending to know more than I knew was one of my main campus activities.

However, when the first of the women began to read lines, I had to stop acting as if this was all old hat to me. I grabbed the sides of my chair as if it was in danger of taking off. I was electrified, but not by the acting. No disrespect to the actors, but what had me jazzed were Shange’s words. I flipped through the pages of the script, eager to speak the words for myself.

And then, slowly, I realized that there were no male roles in the play. Yes, the title should have been a give-away, but I’d missed it. As it turned out, the play had seven meaty roles for seven colored girls but not a single colored boy could be found anywhere. Dang! These were words I wanted to read. This was a world I wanted to step into. Not because I’d ever run away from home with Toussaint L’Ouverture or spent graduation night losing my virginity in the back of a Buick. Those stories weren’t my stories, but they were so real and urgent, they were like slaps across your face. Pouring over the pages I would never get to read, I recognized honesty – and realized how seldom you actually get to hear it.

And not for the last time, I realized I was not the demographic.

The men in the group were rehearsing some other piece I can’t recall for the life of me. Taking a break from our rehearsal, we sat and watched while the ladies in brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue and orange read their lines. The director paced in the back of the room, then marched up to the women, pointing a dissatisfied finger at the lady in red. The director was becoming increasingly frustrated trying to explain what was supposed to be going on emotionally inside the character. I leaned forward listening, thinking yes, yes, what’s going on inside the character. To be honest, I don’t recall how I ended up on stage, whether the director asked for volunteers or if I was really that bold, but all I know is for a moment I was standing in front of everyone reading lady in red. And not just any ol’ lady in red monologue; I was reading the Beau Willie Brown monologue. Yes, I was. I got to stand up and clutch at the air while shiftless Beau Willie dropped my babies out of my tenement window. You have to take my word for it; you would’ve been weeping.

Seeing my enthusiasm, some of the older brothers felt obliged to take me aside to explain that for colored girls… was an attack on the black man. They walked me through the demonizing images and emasculating agenda but I was too far-gone. I had fallen head over heels for those lowercase letters, that bebop syntax, the narrative so powerful I could accurately claim this woman who was nothing like me could speak for me.

Actually, I have a dream.

An all-male version of for colored girls… No one’s in drag. No one’s pretending to be a woman. Everyone’s just living the lines and wearing rainbow colored shirts (a guayabera, a muscle-t, a button-down oxford, etc.). Don Cheadle will be the gentleman in yellow. Mos Def will be the gentleman in purple. Taye Diggs will be the gentlemen in green. Forest Whitaker will be the gentleman in brown. Anthony Anderson will be the gentleman in orange. Terrence Howard will be the gentleman in blue. And needless to say, I will be the gentleman in red.

And after the laying on of hands, we will sing about how we found God in ourselves and loved her fiercely.

You will be weeping.

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The Hidden Story: Jaleel Boone

When did they stop putting toys in boxes of cereal?

Yes, it was a manipulative marketing ploy designed to increase profits – but it also increased the happiness of a whole lot of kids, myself included. I remember digging through boxes of Freakies cereal (yes, there used to be a cereal called Freakies) just to find one of the wonderful squishy rubber monsters inside. Now, years later, I have no memory of what Freakies looked or tasted like, but I absolutely remember (quite fondly) those little freaky monsters.

Because the things I have to dig for are inevitably the things that mean the most to me, I always find myself looking for what is hidden beneath the surface. It’s completely possible that I’m working through some personal issues, but I never expect to find treasures laying on the surface – and that is never more true than when it comes to stories.

As much as I love a good monster story (who doesn’t?), I would hate for a monster story to simply be about a monster. I would hate for a love story to be just about people falling in love. I would hate for an action flick to only contain action. I am convinced that every great story must have a hidden story buried inside it, like a toy deep inside the cereal.

Jaleel Boone, one of my former students, opened my eyes to the treasure hidden inside the 1992 film, “Aladdin.” We were discussing the movie because he mentioned that “Aladdin” was his first, favorite story. Now, to be honest, “Aladdin” isn’t a movie I think of very often and, when I do, I usually think of it as a nice love story or a better-than-decent adventure story. Jaleel, however, forced me to look at the movie in a new way. He insists that beneath the comedy, the music, and the big, blue genie, there is a hidden story. He told me, “Aladdin does something bad but he fixes it in the end. He’s not super goody-goody. He lies. He’s a flawed character. I can relate to that.” For Jaleel, the story of “Aladdin” contains a story not immediately seen on the surface. Inside the story is a story of a guy who’s made mistakes but gets a chance to correct them.

Who knew the big, blue genie was hiding a story of redemption?

Jaleel is preparing to shoot his original screenplay entitled, “Concrete.” Based on the panic created in 1938 when Orson Wells broadcast his infamous radio drama, “The War of the Worlds,” Jaleel’s film is based on the real-life events that happened in Concrete, Washington when a power outage coincidentally hit the town in the middle of the radio program.

Although I am always a sucker for highbrow sci-fi, “Concrete” is about more than wondering what people do when they think aliens are coming to kill them. Inside Jaleel’s story is the story of a relationship facing a threat more dire than monsters from outer space.

Without getting “all up in his business,” Jaleel shared with me that the relationship between his principal characters is based on a real relationship he was in. Beneath all of the obvious excitement of the film’s plot is the hidden story about a couple being crushed by the weight of societal pressures. Like a toy hidden in a box of cereal. People may come to the story for one thing, but as with any great story, they should leave with more than they anticipated.

I suspect that there are some very important things that Jaleel wants to say about what happened to his real-life relationship. I suspect that it is this hidden story that made him passionate enough to undertake telling his other story. And I also suspect that Jaleel is discovering that no small amount of passion is needed to make a film. It takes passion to ask people to sacrifice their time and talent to work on a film for no money. It takes passion to ask friends, family and complete strangers for money to shoot a film. It takes passion to tell your story in front of an audience – and that is what Jaleel is doing.

Currently in pre-production, Jaleel plans to shoot his film in October and November of this year.  He’s scheduling his talent, finishing up his storyboards and working on the final draft of his script. “I’ve gotten so much support from everyone because everyone cares so much and wants to be invested because they like the project,” he says. “And it’s great knowing it’s going to be what I wanted it to be without cutting corners.” What he wants it to be is a film that will get into some notable film festivals and to get him into a notable film school.

Although I don’t know the end of Jaleel’s story, I’m excited to see what will happen for him and for “Concrete.” On the surface, his story looks like the typical story about a guy making a guerrilla film, but I’ve caught a glimpse of the story’s subtext. Inside that particular box of cereal is the hidden story of a guy who’s discovered his passion. And that’s a toy worth digging for.

Posted in Profiles, Storytelling | 2 Comments

The Story No One Can Ever Tell Again

THIS PAST JUNE, I traveled to my ancestral home in Fort Wayne, Indiana for my nephew’s graduation from high school. I don’t get back to the Fort often but when I do I always pay a visit to my former next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Stephens. Although Mrs. Stephens started off simply being the mother of my friends, as I’ve grown older I’ve been surprised to find that my relationship with her has grown into an adult relationship and our conversations are now adult conversations. When I was a kid, I always suspected that adults spoke about secret things – and I was right. A good chunk of “adult” conversation consists of gossip that passes as stories. These tidbits of news and ugly truths get passed along, from mouth to ear, just like well-worn dollar bills. This is the currency that adults trade. And it’s the currency I looked forward to trading with Mrs. Stephens.

My wife and I sat down in Mrs. Stephens’ living room and, to my pleasant surprise, her son (and my childhood friend) Greg was there to offer us large glasses of lemonade to sip while we passed along stories that had been passed along to us. The storytelling was perfectly pleasant until, just as our conversation was winding down (and just I started thinking about what my own mother was fixing for dinner next door), Greg perched on the edge of his easy chair and asked us if we knew about Trixie. Mrs. Stephens covered her mouth and said, “Oh, Trixie! Now that’s a story!”

I said I wasn’t sure if I’d heard it and Greg laughed. He said that if I knew about Trixie (not her real name, by the way) there would be no way I could ever forget it. Drawing us in, he said that after he was done telling us the story, no one would ever be able to tell the story again.

Obviously what he meant was that he was going to tell his story so well that it would be pointless for anyone else to even try re-telling the tale. I smiled because he was clearly exaggerating. Like Atlantis and leprechauns, stories that can only be told once aren’t real. However, despite my unbelief, I had to admit that it was a great way to start the story.

The story he and his mother told was, without question, the best story I’d heard all year. It was more fascinating, more enthralling, more surprising than any movie, television show or book I’d seen or read in a long, long time. No other story I’d heard even came close. It wasn’t just the juicy details of the story; it was how Greg and Mrs. Stephens told the story, like tag team wrestlers, each taking their turn to beat the story into submission.

Greg began telling the true story of how Trixie was going to introduce them to her brand-new fiancé. Mrs. Stephens then jumped in with the back-story, explaining how poor Trixie had always been unlucky in love (there was a nice flashback to the time she fell in love online with a self-professed rich doctor who showed up on her doorstep looking for a place to stay and some fried chicken). Greg then went off on a tangent describing how he paid a visit to the summer redneck games in rural Georgia before tying it all back neatly into the main story. He and his mother told a riveting story of love, deception, and murder with an outboard motor. They were animated; they used visual aids; they reenacted scenes. It was funny, violent and masterful. I wish you could have been there.

What was the story? How did the sweet promise of romance twist and turn its way into a dark tale of a double-life sentence without a chance for parole? Well, this is going to be terrible, but I can’t tell you – for three very good reasons.

1) The story involves real people who may get their feelings hurt.
2) The story involves real people who are criminals who may break out of prison in order to hurt me.
3) The story really can’t be told again.

Greg was absolutely right: he totally killed it. I’ve tried to tell the story a couple of times and I’ve never been able to recreate his mix of shock and awe. The story of Trixie was more than a cold restatement of the terrible things that happened to her; it was the manner and circumstances in which it was told. For you to truly experience the story, you had to have been sitting on Mrs. Stephens’ couch with a glass of lemonade in your hand. To fully appreciate the story, you had to know the Stephens and they had to know you. To be as jazzed as my wife and I were, you had to know a few things but you had to be completely ignorant about others. A perfect story (which that was) is in the telling. Greg and Mrs. Stephens’ story would be both different and diminished if retold. I can’t tell Greg’s story because I’m not Greg and I can’t copy his telling.

There are reasons why Alan Moore‘s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” worked brilliantly as a comic book series and flopped spectacularly as a film. The screenwriters, as talented as they were, were not Mr. Moore so it only makes sense that their story isn’t Mr. Moore’s story. The film version of “The League…” is also different from the comic because, obviously, it’s a film and a film can’t do what a comic book series does. That doesn’t mean feature films are a lower art form; it simply means they are a different and have an entirely different set of strengths.

In a time when all stories are expected to work across multiple media platforms (the comic has to be a TV show; the book has to be a movie; the TV show has to mobile app, etc.), I suspect that great stories are great not just because of their specific details but because of the manner in which they were told. Stories that can be plugged into a wide variety of devices and reconfigured for endless formats are probably nothing more than merchandise masquerading as stories.

I would tell you the story if I could (no one likes adult conversation more than I do), but I sincerely believe that the best and only way to hear the story of Trixie was sipping lemonade on the couch in Mrs. Stephens’ living room, just as the sun was going down, in the summer of 2011. There’s no point in saying what the story was; Greg killed it.

Posted in Essays, Storytelling | 10 Comments