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Monday, June 23, 2014

Email to Harold Ellis Clark

On Mon, Jun 23, 2014 at 2:51 AM, Jerry Ward <> wrote:
Dear Harold,
Uncle Bobby '63 makes a gripping statement about human consciousness, about our casual assumption that we know the story of civil rights struggles. Your play-in-progress challenges us to admit that we do know the story in a general, superficial way but that our understanding of the "impossible" complexity of the story is wanting; we do need the focus Uncle Bobby '63 to the local, the specific. It applies the brakes to our penchant for generalizing. How you use the brakes in some final version, however, requires you to cut away the interesting but excessive tangents and to create a riveting focus on who Uncle Bobby was and why people like him continue to be of great importance in struggles for civil and human rights. I realize that younger audiences may not know very much about the Civil Rights Movement. I am not sure that the surplus of information you try to cram into two acts makes the play an effective vehicle for communicating an effective lesson. Yes, the play is about the Civil Rights Movement and what has been dim in the telling of that story. Nevertheless, the real contribution you can make to African American drama is refocusing us on how the specific story of Uncle Bobby informs the continuing and rather general drama of our struggles.
From listening to the reading of the script, I was led to think that you are really exploring habits of the heart and what seems to remain constant in being heroic. At the same time you are (re)presenting psychic wounds from the 1960s that we hesitate to discuss. Such an effort is brave and necessary. What I sensed is missing is a sufficiently sharp focus on Bobby. You do succeed in making us aware of how attitudes about Uncle Bobby ---Zenobia almost worships him and her husband Dwight is determined to hate what he sees of himself in Bobby. There is symbiosis between the private tensions in the marriage and the more public tensions in the history of civil rights work. Cutting some of the dialogue ----especially Joseph's burden of heritage ---and ensuring what remains is always riveting the point about symbiosis might enhance the play's power. Ideas about the heroic and the tragic are very, very important in Uncle Bobby '63, and greater unity and economy of words is needed. Don't overexplain as August Wilson was wont to do. Take a lesson from Ali -- sting our consciousness rapidly. Cut the fat and make the language of the dialogue as memorable as prose poetry. Let the language stun us! Let it enthrall us into bitter recognitions.
Here are some of the notes I wrote during the reading:
1) Make the speech of characters more individual; attend more to idiomatic phrasing that distinguishes one character from another ---I need to hear more difference
2) Visualizing injuries on Zenobia's body is good ---the story of scars. The dress that is discarded is a nice symbol; so too is the bottle of wine as a fetish that says something about Zenobia
3) Baptism of urine and acid ---good correlatives for exteme white obscenity as well as the horror of war (mustard gas in WWI, atomic bombs in WWII, napalm in Viet Nam) --in relation to the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), war was more than a metaphor
4) Soul force and non-violence is a good foil for the "violence" of Dwight's homophobia. Am not sure Dwight realizes his verbal violence against Bobby is a mirror of the violence of racism
5) Do more with Bobby's having interviewed James Baldwin --make the subtext regarding tolerance and human rights stronger
6) Dwight's being raped by a cop throws issues of masculinity into the face of the audience --- a very good move --good illustration of what is criminal, psychosexual, and savage in police practice even in 2014
7) Joseph's long story about Sir Thomas Bedford and Rhode Island and Providence Plantation recalls the sordid orgins of wealth that established Brown University (a subject of recent research), but his story detracts from what is most significant about the main idea in the play ---drop or minimize this distraction
8) Who in this play is enslaved to what?
9) Use of specific place names, the black press --very good
10) References to La Marseillaise and the Arc de Triomphe are quite lost on an audience might not know "La Mareseillaise" is a bit of sculpture on the Arc de Triomphe showing the French volunteers of 1792. Perhaps a very brief monologue from Bobby about French history in his life is necessary or his singing what from the lyrics of the French national anthem is most meaningful to him
11) Use of Darlene Love's "Please Come Home" is a nice surprise for those of us who expect "Please Come Home for Christmas" ---if not for Christmas by New Year's Night.
12) Ike is a minor character but I like him because he is a drinker. The ending of the play would be so much stronger if Ike refused to leave Bobby. I am so weary of reading again and again in our literature that the black male hero dies alone. It would be a real plus, a real innovation in black theater, if Ike decided not to leave Bobby and shared Bobby's inevitable fate. That would cement a point about gay friendships, about the equality of those friendships with those of combat soldiers who die together.
Harold, I'll be using these notes --I hope they are a bit helpful ---at some later time in writing about your work. For now, I urge you to get on with cutting and polishing Uncle Bobby '63 into a play that matches the classic economy of Tom Dent's Ritual Murder.
By the way, Chakula Cha Jua wants to read the script.
All best wishes,

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