This seems to be the week regional theater takes a turn toward biography. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Solo Takes On festival returns for its second season of striking autobiographical solo shows, before a Duke contingent and Hidden Voices unearth the most influential Durhamite you've likely never heard of in To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray.
Two other new shows also have more than a tinge of biography. Actor Jeffery Blair Cornell plays infamous conservative hatchet man Roy Cohn in Playmakers Rep's Angels in America. And although emerging playwright Monica Byrne clearly worked in a biology lab, let's hope her dark comedy Nightwork is mainly a work of fiction.
At Durham's Hayti Heritage Center, attention will be paid to the legacy of an important human rights activist in To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray. In her foreword to the final volume of Notable American Women, scholar Susan Ware puts the case succinctly: "Pauli Murray was involved in practically all the major developments that historians write about when they try to make sense of the 20th century ... Civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality—no matter the subject, she was there."
It bears noting, too, that Murray was frequently "there" about a generation or so before her culture arrived. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks wouldn't yield her bus seat, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a Virginia bus. Twenty years before the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, Murray led a group of university students demanding service at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
After UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard denied her admission to their law programs on the basis of her race and gender, she went on to become one of the architects of the legal strategy the NAACP pursued in overturning segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called her writings "the Bible for civil rights lawyers."
But despite these and other achievements—including co-founding the National Organization for Women in 1966 and becoming the first African-American woman ordained an Episcopal priest, in 1977—she remains somewhat obscure, as Barbara Lau of the Duke Human Rights Center acknowledges.
"The most common thing I hear," Lau says, "is 'why don't I know about her?'"
Lau, who is also the director of the Pauli Murray Project, which is co-producing the play with Hidden Voices, credits Murray's childhood in Durham with fundamentally influencing the outcome of her life.
"Pauli Murray grew up in that family at a time when black and white people were growing Durham, prospering and reaching some of their potential. She came to Durham in 1913, at a point when all of the Jim Crow laws start being enforced. She grows up at a time where her uncle Richard (the first president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank) had a 24-room mansion here in Durham."
"But," Lau adds, "she also sees that her grandfather can't drink out of the same water fountain as white people. She sees that the school she went to is built of wood, while the white kids had a brick school. She gained her concept of what was possible—and her experience of the impact of segregation—here. And she fought against that for the rest of her life."
For Lynden Harris, the director of Hidden Voices, who is collaborating with Lau on the project, the scope of Murray's achievement wasn't as daunting as capturing "a feeling for her actual life as lived—which was really quite a bit different from the stories that just portray, in hindsight, how effective some of her actions were."
"We do this with many of our heroes. It's very easy for them to become iconic figures, rather than human beings. Certainly, Murray did not experience her life as extraordinary in grace so much as challenging and demanding. At one point she wrote, 'I've lost most of my battles, but I've lived long enough to see my 'lost causes' found.'"
"One of the first things I ever did in my career that just exploded—kaboom!—was a one-person show called Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown," director Joseph Megel recalls during a rehearsal for the second season of Solo Takes On, a festival of solo performances running this week in Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. Megel speaks with some authority on the genre; under his direction, Breakdown had award-winning runs in Los Angeles and New York.
"So let's put it on the table; solo performance can be deadly," Megal continues.
"But when it's done well, it can be one of the most exciting types of performances for an audience, an incredibly intense and intimate experience that engages with them in more personal ways than they might be in a regular stage play."
For this year's festival, Megel has mentored Gretchen Fox Klobucar, a graduate student from the performance studies program, and Sean McKeithan, a recent graduate, as they've developed new scripts. McKeithan's show, On Breathing in the Barrel, explores the sexuality of drinking bourbon in the South, while Fox Klobucar's (G)rape interrogates the conventions of psychotherapy in the aftermath of sexual assault.
Rounding out the program is visiting artist Carlos Manuel, whose show La Vida Loca probes the culturally schismatic experiences of a gay Hispanic immigrant within the frame of the tale of "La Llorona," the "crying woman" in Mexican folklore.
"One of the things that I love about Carlos' work," notes Dr. Ashley Lucas, professor in UNC's Department of Dramatic Arts and Latina/o Studies Program, "is that it's incredibly funny, but in a way that makes you think about the political issues he's addressing. La Vida Loca is about his journey to the United States when he was 8 years old and undocumented, as his family gets caught as they cross the border.
"But he helps give his audiences the sense that not all immigrants are alike. He tells a very poignant story about a young gay man in Mexico who was lynched because he was perceived to be gay. Immigration is not just something that people do because they want American freedoms or American jobs; there are a lot of different, complicated pressures that drive people to feel they need to flee the place they were born."