In the 1980s and ’90s, I was a professor of theater arts at Moorpark College.Â The issue of interracial relationships was a major topic for my students. Â To them, the idea of meeting, dating and even falling in love with someone of a different race was new and challenging. Many of those students would talk to me about the obstacles they faced — they knew I had a strong interracial marriage.Â It was during this time period that I came up with the idea for Voices.
I’ve been writing plays for more than 30 years, and I have often been asked where I get my ideas. The answer is that I usually get them while driving the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), because PCH is my muse.
I love driving, especially along the PCH between Los Angeles and all points north. With the great Pacific Ocean on one side, beautiful scenery on the other and miles and miles of sweeping highway, it’s usually there that I get that “ahhh ha!” moment. Â It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does with a certain amount of frequency.Â Voices is a good example of this.
While I was driving and listening to public radio, I heard excerpts from The Slave Narratives. Recorded in the 1930s and stored in the Library of Congress, The Slave Narratives are taped interviews of former slaves who lived during the Civil War.Â Most of the African-Americans who are interviewed were in their 80s and 90s.Â Listening to those voices from the past talking about what life was like being a slave in 19th century America had an immediate and profound effect on me.Â Â I wanted to find a way to have those voices come to life and speak to a contemporary audience. Â So, I started to research The Slave Narratives, and thus began my journey that resulted in Voices.
At the Library of Congress in Washington, I had the opportunity to listen to many hours of the recordings. Â The research took five months, and writing the initial draft of the script took another two months.Â At the first reading, I discovered that, while the Voices characters were very moving, there was no “drama,” no real conflict in this first draft. I had the characters but no real play.
I was stuck.Â What to do? I got in my car and took off on PCH to find my “muse”.Â It took about 250 miles for it to happen. Â Out of nowhere the idea of “how” to tell the story came into my mind:
“Let the voices talk to us through a character who’s writing a play about them. Â Let them come to life to that writer and have their recorded voices have an effect on the writer’s personal life.”
And so I came up with my protagonist, Lena Walker, an African American playwright who is in love with David, a white college professor. It’s their romantic relationship that the voices affect in a profound manner. Once I got that, I turned around and headed back home.
The second draft of the play took a few weeks to write. Â Soon afterwards,the play was produced and well received. Â But even with a successful production, I felt the play was still missing something.Â I wanted to go back and get it right, but other projects came up. That was 20 years ago.
Last year I re-read a copy of the 1993 version of the play.Â I had to go up to Santa Barbara for a meeting.Â So, off I went again, heading north on PCH. Â While driving, I realized how to make the script better.Â “˜The character of Lena needed a stronger antagonist, and that’s when I came up with the character of Reverend Walker, a fiery African-American minister and Lena’s father. Â Now I had my “stronger antagonist.”Â Â Once again, my muse came through for me.
My relationship with Sabah El-Amin and Malik El-Amin, co-founders of Griot Theatre of the West Valley, goes back to 2005, when I cast Sabah in my play Sojourner — The Story of Sojourner Truth.Â Also, Sabah acted inÂ Peppur Chambers’ House Rules, which I directed in 2010. Â In 2011, we spoke about Voices being a part of Griot Theatre’s inaugural season.
I am delighted to be working with them, and bringing Voices to life once again.
Voices, Griot Theatre of the West Valley, on the campus at Bethel Encino, 17500 Burbank Blvd. Encino 91316. Opens March 23. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through April 14. (Dark April 5.) Open captioning available March 30 and April 7. The venue is equipped with aÂ “Hearing Loop”Â for hard-of-hearing audience members who wear hearing aids with T-Coils & Cochlear Implants.Â Tickets: $25 http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/336930 or www.Facebook.com/GriotTheatre
**All Voices production photos courtesy ofÂ Leticia Rey Photography.
Les Wieder, now retired, was professor of theater arts at Moorpark College for 28 years.Â His plays include: Sojourner: The Story of Sojourner Truth (Hudson Theatre); Elijah, the opera libretto, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza; Voices (Hollywood), Zamo, Mayfair Theatre, The Secrets of Harry Lay (San Diego). His directing credits include Sojourner: The Story of Sojourner Truth (Hudson Theatre); Elijah; The Secrets of Harry Lay (San Diego); House Rules (Hollywood). Sojourner received a NAACP Drama award for best ensemble production and an NAACP President’s Award. Weider continues to write and direct and cruise along PCH.