Characters with Contradiction: An Interview with Playwright Michael Cristofer

Playwright Michael Cristofer’s work spans from stage to screen as a writer, director, and actor. As rehearsals began on this production of Man in the Ring, he spoke with Director of New Work Charles Haugland about the discoveries he made in bringing Emile Griffith’s story to the stage.

How did you first become interested in telling Emile Griffith’s story?
I worked with Terrance Blanchard, who is a fantastic jazz trumpet performer and composer. He has done the scores for many Spike Lee films, and he also scored two of the pictures I directed. He was commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He came to me, and asked me to write the libretto. As a hobby, he’s done a lot of boxing, so he knew the Emile Griffith story and he said, “Would this make a good story for something on the stage?” That's how I learned about Emile.

I didn’t know anything about him before then, and also had never written a libretto for an opera before. When I sat down to write, I found myself writing a play, so then I adapted the play into a libretto, but a libretto is only 40 pages, when a play is 120. We’ve done the opera in St. Louis, San Francisco, and at The Kennedy Center. It’s going to be in Montreal this winter. So it’s having a life, which is fantastic. Then a friend of mine at a theatre in Chicago came to me, and said he had heard about the opera. He said, “Would you be interested in writing a play about this character?” I jumped at that because I had so much material that I hadn’t used.

What sparked your interest when you first started to read about Emile Griffith?
Emile Griffith is a black Caribbean American born in St. Thomas. He came to New York as an immigrant, hoping to be a baseball player or a singer. He was drawn into becoming a boxer — which he didn’t have a passion for to begin with — but then found the passion and had a very long career. It’s not a story that on the surface would seem to be connected to me, but it was. He was a man in a world where the definition of masculinity was very strict in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a man struggling with his sexuality in terms of his own masculinity. I grew up in an Italian ghetto where the definitions of masculinity were strict, and I had struggled with my sexuality. Also, when I started writing the play, he and I were about the same age, and it was an age where a person begins to slow down and start to reconsider your life. Like Emile Griffith, I had some fantastic successes, but I also had some terrible failures. There was a sense of wanting to make peace with my past. I saw, in his story, a man slipping into dementia and trying to make peace.

Is it different for you to tell a real person’s story versus a person you've created?
I am working on a play now about Georgia O’Keefe’s struggle for identity and her relationship with Stieglitz. Something in there just connected with me. It’s a mysterious thing. I’ve been offered jobs to write about a certain subject or a certain character, and I’ve felt no connection. Then you can’t do it. But when that mysterious thing happens, and you feel like your voice and their voice have a similar connection, then it can be done.

But it’s also treacherous because, if you are telling a story about a real person, do you take on the burden of telling the story in a biographical way? Unless you are writing a 700-page biography, I don’t know how accurate any biography is, and especially a play. Shakespeare never got it right about any of those real characters he wrote about. With the play I am working on about Georgia O’Keefe, I’m simply using other people’s lives to tell something about myself. That’s my connection with the person, and that's how I end up telling the story. It’s my story as much as theirs.

Emile avoided labels for most of his life — especially regarding his sexuality, but also about other aspects of his life. How did you approach writing a character based on someone who was so mutable in terms of how he saw his public persona?
It certainly influenced my impulse to do the story. To me, as a writer, director, and actor, the most fascinating things are complications and contradictions. The more contradictions there are in a character, the more vivid and real the character seems. In life, nobody is one or two things, and Emile is a wealth of contradictions. He was known for having an extraordinary smile and being cheerful and full of so much joy. But at the same time, there was depression going on. He was as gentle as anyone could possibly be, and at the same time there was great violence in him. He was a man who was incapable early on in his life of defining his sexuality — or didn’t feel he could or should. He was living in a world that made it difficult to discover who he was — or to accept and define who he was. That kind of character who has so many contradictions going on in him is rich for a writer.

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