A Play in Pictures, Part I

by:  Molly FitzMaurice at 03/25/2015

The Play that Wouldn’t Fit in a Packet

Molly FitzMaurice is the Literary Apprentice at the Huntington Theatre Company.  In this 3-part series she documents her experience as a dramaturg working on George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum - now playing at the Huntington through April 5.

When we start rehearsal for a play at the Huntington, the staff gathers to welcome the cast and production team over coffee. While others’ hands reach out to grab a muffin or offer a greeting, mine are stacked with packets. Packets -- have you forgotten that word since 10th grade history class, left it in your locker with half the Roman emperors? Maybe your field has swapped it for the sexier “brief” or “file,” but mine never had that nerdy-girl-takes-off-her-glasses-and-is-suddenly-gorgeous teen movie moment. Some dramaturgs are taking down their pony tails and shaking out the stereotype, but much of my practice admittedly still starts in dusty library stacks. Whether it’s a hefty glossary of Depression-era slang for this fall’s Awake and Sing! or 19th century Irish immigrants’ letters home for The Second Girl,  packets of historical and contextual research support most Huntington productions. And at their most basic, the packets of paper I carry are armfuls of words. So how do you dramaturg a play that speaks in images?         

The Colored Museum opens with “slides, rapidly flashing before us. Images we’ve all seen before... The images flash, flash, flash,” and this practice of confronting all-too-familiar images centers the play. For playwright George C. Wolfe, the play “had the form of archetypes or the form of reclaiming, what I like to call reclaiming silhouettes, or reexamining the silhouette. We have such a knee-jerk response to the silhouette, that if it's a fat black woman with a bandanna on her head, we way ‘Offensive? Road block! Don't think! Don't hear what the character's saying, don't deal with it.’ Because so much of the imagery of the archetype has been co-opted by white culture-and turned into a stereotype so that we end up throwing out certain symbols and imagery that have a tremendous amount of power.” When I offer the production team a packet, I hope to enhance our understanding of the play, but a dozen articles on the history of the ‘mammy’ mean far less than the way we feel when confronted with the image of ‘a fat black woman with a bandanna on her head.’ My words would further risk diluting or sanitizing the powerful imagery of this play, or just missing the point.  To understand this play, using the traditional packet would be like serving soup with a slotted spoon.

Research for The Colored Museum meant taking a hard look at stereotypical images.

In Part II of this series, I’ll explore how I expanded my dramaturgical toolkit to accommodate the play that wouldn’t fit in a packet.


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