Farmer's Branch — “In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”
The snatches of melody that punctuate playwright Tennessee Williams’ 1944 breakthrough play The Glass Menagerie generally tend toward atonal notes on the violin. But there’s jazz and blues on tap for The Firehouse Theatre’s new production of the play, which runs through January 27. The setting hasn’t changed—St. Louis in the hard times of the 1930s—but director M. Scott Tatum and an African-American cast filter this classic story through the experience of Depression-era black families who emigrated to northern cities hoping for a better life. (This is also the second local Tennessee Williams production with persons of color in the lead roles, after Theatre of North Texas' A Streetcar Named Desire in October.)
Scott Tatum lives in Farmer’s Branch, only a mile away from TFT in a community he says happily is becoming “more diverse and younger” every year. A transplant from Austin, Tatum’s “day job” finds him at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in the Dallas Arts District, where he is the Dean of Arts Conservatories.
“I oversee the arts curriculum on campus [dance, music, visual arts], and work with the principal on the academic side. One of my main tasks is to make sure that arts and academics are integrated, and working to leverage each other. We use Paul Baker’s work around integration of abilities and common vocabularies; taking your dance classes in the afternoon and your academic classes in the morning doesn’t mean those are altogether different subject areas. They’re all facets of a life you’re going to live, and helping students integrate that is part of our long-term plan.”
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Tatum taught at a fine arts academy in Austin and co-founded an award-winning theater company, Half & Half Productions—directing musicals and plays all along the way. Since coming to Dallas, he’s become an active board member with Soul Rep Theatre Company, and says his work with the group “made this show at The Firehouse Theatre possible.” TheaterJones interviewed Tatum on the day of the play’s first preview performance.
TheaterJones: When did you first encounter The Glass Menagerie? Reading the script in school, seeing it onstage or on film?
M. Scott Tatum: I’m pretty sure I read it in high school, and then studied it in a theater history class in college at UT Austin—but it had been a while. Originally I’m a designer, but moved over into direction some years back. Since then my background is mostly in musicals and children’s theater. I knew Derek [Whitener, TFT’s artistic and education director] from Austin, and sent in my résumé when they did an open director call. And then they said, OK cool—how about The Glass Menagerie?
The ‘script’ I thought I had in my reading pile was actually a novelization of the plot. So I quickly found the acting edition, and watched a couple of the old source films—the John Malkovich one in particular, which is quite good. It’s an odd piece of the repertoire, in that it is so outside of what was being written at the time. How it even got onto Broadway [in 1945] is amazing—it took a concerted effort by a couple of critics in Chicago [where the play premiered late in 1944] who just kept at it.
I love challenges, though. And so I didn’t want just to re-create the show, and began a deep dive to explore [ideas]. I looked into the economic history of St. Louis at the time of the play, and stumbled across research out of one of the universities up there that had done a great job of building maps of demographic and economics [in parts of the city]. And specifically, they looked at it in terms of segregation. I did some research on public housing at the time—it was very segregated—and the mapping project had some tracking of LGBTQ data, so it also was possible to layer on Tennessee William’s life as a gay man. Pulled together, all these subjects were very interesting.
It’s a family story, first and foremost—so you have to wonder, what, really, does a change of race do to the feel, the trajectory of the story? What are the parallels and the differences, what are the ‘notes’ sounded in the play because it’s an African-American cast?
One of the lovely things about this idea—I thought I was brilliant, but of course my lighting professor at UT used to tell us there were 14 ideas in all of theater, and the Greeks had them all—as soon as I thought about this I went to see who might have done the play with an African-American cast. And I did find some beautiful research about productions at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s). In that research what spoke to me, even before I pitched it to The Firehouse, was the sort of universality versus specificity question that comes up in casting a lot; that is, what happens a lot of times is that when we default to white, we reinforce the idea that this is the norm, and that the universality of the story comes from a white default.
But what I’ve learned in my time as a theater practitioner is that universality actually comes from having an audience who can empathize with people who are different from themselves as they are seeing the same story. That piece was huge. Firehouse has been doing a lot of work in this for the past few years—I’m a board member of Soul Rep Theatre Company, an African diaspora company here in Dallas—and it’s lovely to have an opportunity to keep saying, hey, stories are important no matter who tells them. And then the extra layer of this particular telling, of a family who’s been pulled out of the south, who have lost their father, who have a young man who is struggling with who he is…all that speaks to African-American families too. I work with so many students who struggle with their identity in a conservative family trying to hold up an appearance of having it together even though every day is a struggle.
In talking to the actors, though, many of them said they hadn’t even considered coming to audition until they saw we had specifically said this was to be an African-American cast. But as soon as they got into the script, their reaction was oh my gosh, the story here is so much of who I am, of who my family is. Our young man playing Tom has deep feelings about this; he was raised by a single mother; he understands that struggle because he’s lived that life. So their stories started filtering through the characters, and that’s been beautiful. The other thing we looked at was the music of the time, and instead of doing the usual default for the show, weird atonal classical violin, we really invested in the jazz and blues piano aesthetic of the period, that had come up from New Orleans just as the family had come up from the South to St. Louis. We have a live underscore on piano for the entire show.
And also, that music is linked aurally and emotionally to the absent father in some way?
Correct. The presence of the father’s photograph in the show is pretty impactful even when it’s just a photograph, but we wondered, what if this isn’t a paper photograph of him, but a living photograph? What if Dad is present in a very meaningful way onstage, so he can gently move, and look, and watch what’s happening? And that actor is the piano player too. He’s watching the show, he’s underscoring the show, and if an actor says ‘your Dad had a lot of charm too’—suddenly the ‘portrait’ has a slight smile on his face. The presence of that memory…yes, it’s a photo, but most of us when we look at a photo also experience the memory of what was captured in the picture…is kind of beautiful and sad, all wrapped together. Dad is gone, but he can’t be forgotten—and the impact of how he left them can’t be forgotten. And to me, it lays some accountability on the dad. He’s trapped, witnessing the aftermath of his decision to run away from his family.
But I’m still watching the show [in rehearsal; the first preview performance was, as of this interview, just hours away]. We’ll see what lands.
The Firehouse Theatre’s space seems very flexible: it’s somehow big enough to take on large-cast musicals, but small enough for intimate shows, too.
I can’t wait for people to see this. Brandon Tijerina, our set and costume designer, is someone I’ve known since our college days in Austin, and now we’ve finally circled around to work together. We’ve used the space in a new way—in fact, we did exactly the opposite of what you’d expect for this show. For the big musicals, Firehouse is very clever about staging, shoving everything possible onto the stage and just making it feel bigger. For this, what I’ll say is, we’ve opened things up. We’ve created an emptiness that feels intimate.
We won’t give away all the secrets. You sound quite pleased and excited about having this opportunity.
Farmer’s Branch is my community; I only live a mile away, so I’m really happy to get to invest in this theater—and I’m interested in having people who come often to The Firehouse respond to having the space looking so different.
Farmer’s Branch is becoming a more diverse and younger community, which is awesome. So I’m interested too in how the theater’s audience will respond to stories they maybe haven’t seen—Once Upon This Island is coming up—and to seeing more diverse voices onstage.
You said recently you were “so happy” that your work with Soul Rep had made this show at The Firehouse Theatre possible.
I knew the casting challenge for this show would be to convince actors that we wanted them to audition. In fact, there’s been a really interesting conversation about this recently on the D-FW Theater site, where people have said ‘you want a show to be diverse, but nobody shows up.’ I had a company in Austin we called Half & Half that specifically focused on stories about identity. I was the white guy and my partner [Julianna Wright] was the black lady who ran the company, that’s where the name came from. And we found we had to be active and explicit about the work we wanted to do.
You can’t just hope for diversity, you have to fight for it.
And the friends I work with at Soul Rep, which focuses on African-American playwrights and stories, have such an amazing network of actors they know, stories they’ve told and communities they’ve performed in, that it was a no-brainer for me to ask that we bridge Soul Rep into the Firehouse world. Co-artistic director Tonya Holloway worked with me to cast the show, and we ended up with two actors in the cast who are regulars with Soul Rep, our Amanda, Monique Ridge-Williams, and our Laura, Kimberly Nicole Williams.
They’ve worked together as mother and daughter before, in fact, when Soul Rep did a couple of playwright Regina Taylor’s Trinity River Plays.
Yes, they have. Monique and the Soul Rep folks helped us find a new Laura, in fact, when the young woman we cast got a job in L.A. with one day’s notice. Kimberly is mostly a musician now, but has been wanting to step back into acting again. Her musicality is awesome, and she’s been able to work with our piano player to build out the underscoring and find those moments that can grow in different ways. Kimberly’s been stunning to have in the cast. She and Emanuel Smith, our piano player/portrait, are both Booker T. Washington alumni, so I have three families coming together in this show: my Farmer’s Branch family, my Soul Rep family, and my Booker T. family.
I noticed in my research that there’s been both an Indian and an Iranian film ‘take’ on this play in recent years, and I could see how the story would work well in that very stratified and traditional kind of world. For me, Glass Menagerie brings to mind earlier generations of my Irish family, the ‘lace curtain’ Irish who were so painfully worried about what people thought of them, about their social standing--and always carrying the dread of going backward economically.
As we were doing table work as a cast [before rehearsals began], Monique talked a lot about that kind of thing in the African-American community here, the sororities and fraternities and cotillion events—what it felt like, and the element of keeping up with the Joneses, which becomes important in every community, of course.
We took a very musical approach to the play, but you mentioned the Indian film, and how great would it be to take the story in a more physical direction with dance? I thought immediately of a wonderful Indian dance group here in town—how beautiful it would be.
Glass Menagerie was Williams’ breakthrough play. [Note to TJ readers: It needs to be mentioned here that our namesake, the great director and regional theater maven Margo Jones, co-directed the play’s first production in both Chicago and New York.] And it’s so honest, so raw in opening up his own past, his own life to the audience. Young writers sometimes have that one autobiographical story, that one ‘truth’ about themselves to tell, and then they’re done. What does it say about Tennessee Williams that this first play wasn’t also his last play—that he wasn’t done?
No, he wasn’t done. I think we could all write one of these plays about our families, but for him it was one part of a great body of work, one episode. One of the great experiences of my life was taking my mom to see August: Osage County in New York some years ago. And to see her experience and respond to the play—it was so close to home, so close to her life with the mother and the sisters. And Glass Menagerie is like that. I don’t have the same situation, but the idea of a mom trying so hard to do what’s right, but in the process alienating her children—Amanda has a line that’s something like “I have made myself a demon to my children.’ Amanda recognizes she’s doing damage in caring so much, but she doesn’t know how else to do it. And that’s both beautiful and sad…and reminds us that like everyone else, you’re going to turn into your mom or dad, or marry someone like them, all those classic tropes of life.
How can I be different [the play asks]—but also, how can I validate what my family had to do to get me where I am? All of that comes through, in Tom’s struggle, and Tennessee Williams’ struggle as he writes these plays, having to decide how he’s going to present this. We have Tom writing in his journal a lot in the play, and reading it so that we hear at times that his language is heightened and poetic—he’s written it down, thought about it, sometimes romanticized things, especially with his mother. But also sometimes he’s searching for a word in the moment.
But by the end, Tom must recognize that he left his sister in this position where, if it follows what happened to Williams real sister, he knows she’ll be institutionalized and lobotomized. To be Tennessee Williams and write that, and then write any number of his other shows that dive into his mom more and more, and his own identity challenges—that is a bold person.
I hope this was his catharsis, his therapy.