At the core of any successful production is an open, inspired, and constructive relationship between writer and director. To my mind, this bond is the sacred foundation upon which a play's life is built. As a playwright, I learn so much from my directors. While working on a script, we engage in hearty discourse about everything from design elements to actor interpretations to dramaturgy and development. Talking through a script with a director is when I come alive - it's that magical process through the blueprint you've established on the page is given physical, tangible life on the stage.
My bond with director Lovell Holder is a special one. We went to undergrad together, where he was instrumental in the development of my first full-length play Orange Woman. We have recently reconnected and I'm happy to be collaborating with him on a new solo show, The Duat. It will be part of Son of Semele's Solo Creation Festival, where it will run from July 27-30.
Set in the Egyptian afterlife, this language-movement-performance work imagines the spiritual reckoning of Cornelius Johnson, a fictionalized FBI informant during the Black Power Movement.
In the thick of rehearsals, I took some time to chat with Lovell about his experience with The Duat. Here are my five questions for him:
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): After you just read the script, what came to your mind?
Lovell Holder (LH): My instant thought was how proud I was of you as a writer, Roger. Given that we've known each other over ten years now, it's been such a privilege to watch you grow and develop your craft, and I continue to be so impressed by the level of focus you're finding in your work, The Duat being no exception. Indeed, the images that come to mind for the play for me are those of an onion or perhaps even nesting dolls, as our hero keeps revisiting the same narratives over and over again until he comes closer and closer to the truth (well, what he can admit as the truth). Because the language within the text captures so many different tones over the course of the narrative (simultaneously poetic, reckless, elegiac, the list goes on and on...), I also was excited by how we could explore these shifts with movement (both in complimentary ways and through means that might run a little more perpendicularly at the text). Finally, even though the story takes place in a very specific incarnation of the Egyptian afterlife, I was very moved by how distinctly American the story is. We follow our lead character from his childhood in Texas into his twenties in Los Angeles (and beyond), while also visiting on his father's exploits in Virginia years prior. Given the little touches of street names and specific political movements that pepper the narrative
(the ghosts of many of them still with us some 50 years after the events described in the story), I felt a strong connection to the themes of journeying and how that relates to a quest for identity, which I do believe
is something toward which many Americans feel a very unique kinship.
RQM: The play is a series of stories told, untold and retold. How will we keep it active?
LH: I think there are multiple factors that are crucial in order to keep the audience engaged in what is fundamentally a collection of ghost stories told over a campfire in many ways (the play isn't set in the afterlife for nothing, after all). Obviously, there are the simple technical performance components that our wonderful actor, Darien Battle, and I revisit over and over again in rehearsal, investigating pace and the employment of upward vocal inflection to keep the text constantly up and moving. There are of course deeper and more specific tools that we rely on for this specific production as well. Chiefly, we've realized that drum that is written in the script is a real gift to enlivening and heightening the development of the narrative, and it helps us distinguish and punctuate how the narrative unravels and corrects itself based on the reliability of our lead character. Secondly, the use of repeated movement phrases and gestures (when they appear; how they appear; how they change both in size, speed, and content; etc.) helps also pique the audience's interest and provide some additional underscoring - and even clues - for deciphering the veracity and honesty of the story that's being told. Mostly however, we benefit from the rich, bold language of the text, and that is our greatest gift for audience engagement.
RQM: What excited me about working with you was the role that movement and music can play in the work. What's the plan?
LH: Right now we've spent several weeks exploring the role of the drum and how that relates to our actor. We had a tremendous discovery in working with a local drummer, the terrific Denice Frazier. Originally, the plan was for Denice to teach Darien some drumming techniques so that he could generate the music himself during performance, which we thought could provoke an interesting dynamic between our primary character and his relationship to the truth (as symbolized by the drum). However, the unspoken musical dialogue that was opened up when Darien and Denice would improv certain sections (him performing the text while she accompanied on the drums) provided him such freedom as an actor and exploded open the text so beautifully that we all very quickly realized that this was the infinitely more magical way to tell the story. Thus, we found the duet in The Duat (pardon the pun). We certainly realized this is the way that the story wants to be told in its current incarnation. Consequently, this epiphany has also changed how we were originally envisioning movement for the piece. What once felt like the need for a demanding physical score to drive the piece now feels like it can be more appropriately accomplished through the use of simple, specific, and repeated gestures that can help suggest and provoke the piece along in concert with the drum. Fundamentally, this piece lives in the text spoken by the actor and the beat evoked by that drum - to get in the way of that would be foolhardy, and every choice we make in terms of staging and choreography has to support that relationship first and foremost.
RQM: You and Darien Battle, our actor, have worked together before. Tell me a little about your history.
LH: Darien and I actually went to grad school together at the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company MFA Program! As such, we've already clocked quite an impressive roster of hours in purgatory together, which made for excellent practice given the subject matter of this piece. All kidding aside, we benefited from attending a phenomenal conservatory training program with some of the best teachers in the world, and consequently we have a very similar working vocabulary and shorthand given that we'd flown out of the same nest, for lack of a better analogy. Darien and I were scene partners many times in class, and we also moved to LA at the same time five years ago, so we've been in the artistic trenches alongside each other for some time. Darien is a very gifted actor who has such a strong, open, fearless presence onstage, and his voice is a truly remarkable instrument. The demands of this script could not be in the hands of a more capable performer.
RQM: Why should people come and support the show?
LH: I certainly think this a story that really invites the audience to explore their relationship with the truth, and how their particular ideas of what they believe their lives to be might or might not align with objective fact. That might not sound fun, but I can guarantee you that Darien makes it a total blast! Roger, amidst an incredibly powerful and moving exploration of guilt both from a historical perspective and a personal one, you've also infused a LOT of humor and surprises that Darien has risen to with eagerness and joy. Consequently, I think the audience is going to laugh quite a bit on their journey in this piece. I'd also recommend this project for anyone who has an interest in African-American history as well as the forgotten stories of mid 20th-Century Los Angeles. You've revived a lot of cultural history and significance that many people should be much more aware of, Roger, and I think anyone who sees this play will leave more informed, both as a citizen of LA and even on the fundamental level of simply being a human trying to figure out where they fit in to the personal vs. political debate that is rapidly shaping our contemporary America.
The Duat runs at Son of Semele's Solo Creation Festival from July 27 to 30. Lovell Holder directs. Darien Battle stars. Denise Frazier performs on drums. Abdullah Helwani produces. It is part of an evening of solo works.
For tickets and more information, visit: https://www.artful.ly/son-of-semele-ensemble/store/events/12537