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Stage

Riffing

Marcus Gardley talks with City Paper about poetry and the blues

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Marcus Gardley, who won the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels award for Mid-Career Playwright, is a busy man. He has been splitting his time between Baltimore, where Center Stage is producing his dance of the holy ghosts; Brown University, where he teaches; and Minneapolis and California, where he has three more productions under way. City Paper sat down with Gardley in one of Center Stage’s rehearsal halls just a few hours before opening night for holy ghosts.

City Paper: The structure and the way that you deal with time is almost so Faulknerian that it seems perfect for a novel, perfect for film, perfect, in fact, for anything but the stage. What drew you to this almost perverse presentation of time for the actors having to be there on the stage?

Marcus Gardley: What I’m most excited about, being a theater artist, is pushing the boundaries of theater. When I first became interested in theater, I felt like I was seeing the same type of play, not necessarily the same story, but the same style of play. And I love reading fiction—I read more fiction than I do plays—and I was curious about how you push the boundaries using some of fiction’s literary devices, or even in dance choreography—I was a dancer—so how do you put some of that in to expand the form? What’s really great about this particular production is that those moments from the world of fiction or film become highly theatricalized, because you have to make a choice. So you’ll see, in some of the staging, it becomes magical realism.

CP: Can you talk about the influence of the blues on the play?

MG: The impulse for writing it was I actually never knew my grandfather. I have one memory of him where I actually broke his gumball machine, and he screamed at me and yelled, so that was my only memory of him. And so when I wanted to write something, I essentially took the pieces of his life I knew from stories and created the character, because I wanted to humanize him in a way, because I’d always heard bad things about him from the people in the my family, and I knew he couldn’t be a bad guy because they always talked about him. So I knew there had to be something. And in that way, I felt like the blues is an art form from the older generation that is not being passed down the way I think it should be. So in the play, it is being passed down, but he [Oscar, the protagonist] doesn’t even know he is passing it down. And the grandson is a poet, so it’s these two artistic expressions dancing with one another, if you will. It’s my way of coming to terms with what I could have gained from him if he had been alive, or had I known him longer, or what I could offer him.

CP: And he was a bluesman?

MG: He was not a bluesman at all. He served in the Korean War and was a chef. But I used a bluesman because I am a poet, and being a chef couldn’t quite mirror that in the same way. I was always taught by my grandmother, who was a storyteller, that when someone gives you their story, you have to add your own piece to it, you have to riff on it, otherwise the story will die.

CP: That’s very much like the blues.

MG: Exactly. Riffing on it. I’m a huge fan of the blues, which is one reason I put the blues there. I just love the whole history of African-American music, from field hollers to gospel, spiritual and blues, and I love the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil. But in this piece, he sold his soul to God, flipping it. God wants him to sing the blues, because oftentimes, what we perceive to be truth or “gospel,” if you will, is not that. And here, blues basically baptized the world and healed people, but he’s stuck, so he can’t do it and continue God’s work.

CP: How did the play end up in Baltimore?

MG: Someone asked me like three years ago, “Where is the ideal place for this play?,” and the first response was Baltimore. And I purposely sought out Kwame [Kwei-Armah] and put this play in his lap. And what I love about Baltimore is that there’s an honesty here that you don’t find in most places, and I feel the communities of two generations trying to connect. So for me, it’s a perfect place. I’m really honored that it came to fruition.

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