“Stories have the power to heal people and the power to transform the cultural fabric.” Playwright Roger Q. Mason waxes philosophical as he describes the process and product of his new play Onion Creek, premiering Friday in a brief run at Son of Semele Theater.
The play explores ancestral identity in post-Civil War Texas, centering around the relationship between Nathaniel, the mixed-race son of former slave owner White Poppa (who has just died), and Minnie, an Irish immigrant. Mason based the story on his own family’s interracial saga, emphasizing a dramatic theme he calls “forgotten moments in remembered time.”
“That’s my mantra,” Mason says. “We take hidden histories like these black and Irish relationships in 1870 Texas. A lot of people don’t know about them or won’t believe. When we put that on the stage through the ritual of theater, we are actually writing it into the cultural narrative. My goal as a playwright is to use drama to illuminate these hidden moments in history. These are stories that the traditional narrative has silenced or cast aside. We have to use drama to bring forth the hidden history people have tried to oppress. Theater is how we can testify the truth.”
The play is a fictionalized version of his family’s history, created in a style that is both emotionally hard-hitting and poetic in language. “I am very interested in what we call magical realism. As it relates to the theater, it implies the idea that the dilemmas of the characters are so great they can do nothing more than holler for help from another world, because they don’t have the power to heal themselves. In this particular play we have a whole lot of characters who don’t have the power to heal themselves, given the confines of the natural world. So they reach out to the supernatural. A great example is a scene that involves Eula Mae Johnson, White Poppa’s night-time lover. In his slave-owning days, White Poppa had a whole lot of black women. He’s dead and she can’t live without her man, so she calls up and tries to conjure him, because the loneliness she is feeling is so great on this plane called earth. “˜Even if he’s a shade, please bring him back.’”
Mixed-race love continues in the story as the Irish sojourner Minnie Haws enters the scene. “She is based on my great-grandmother. In real life Minnie and her mother Maude both had relationships with black men and were shunned by society. One of the inspirational ideas behind the play came from a comment that my aunt made to me when I was younger: “˜We have some white family in Texas and their name is Simmons, and there is a whole host of Simmonses that will never say the name Haws.’ I became fascinated at that time about this idea of interracial relationships and the risks people are willing to take for love.”
Mason’s fascination with hidden histories was nurtured throughout his education. “I had a very unorthodox history teacher in high school. We didn’t study history from the official source; he used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. My perspective has never been the official narrative. It’s always been the people on the outside looking in.” This led to his thesis as a Princeton playwriting student. “I wrote a play called Orange Woman, A Ballad For A Moor, about William Shakespeare’s African mistress.Â I read British historian and filmmaker Michael Wood’s book Shakespeare, and he writes about African immigrants in Elizabethan England. At the beginning he says, “˜There are forgotten stories and forgotten histories. Sometimes the real story doesn’t match the official papers.’ I thought it was fascinating and this is what drama needs to do. Drama needs to find those discarded and disparate stories and pull them back to the forefront of the conversation and culture.”
Mason found theatrical fellow travelers at Padua Playwrights, which is co-producing Onion Creek. He met founder Murray Mednick and the two hit it off, so Mednick sent him to artistic director Guy Zimmerman, who interviewed him to produce the company’s then-upcoming production of Mednick’s DaddyO Dies Well. The interview went extremely well, but the clincher, according to Zimmerman, was Mason’s experience with one of Padua’s most notable writers.
“Roger told me he studied at UCLA with the gifted playwright Leon Martell, a major presence at Padua festivals throughout the 1980s. The point being that Roger came to Murray and me with some Padua training. Roger did a good job for us, and I was struck by how much of a theater person he is on every side, and how much he understood about what Murray is doing in his plays and what the company stands for.Â That said, Roger’s success as a writer is all his own. Earlier this year the first act of Onion Creek was being read in a Dramatists Guild series. I was very happy to discover that Roger is an authentic talent with a rich and lyrical voice that is very much his own. That’s really all you can ask for – authenticity combined with depth and feeling. When Roger asked if we would sponsor the production at Son of Semele, I had to say yes.”
The original Dramatists Guild reading had been staged by up-and-coming director June Carryl — and Zimmerman knew she had to be part of the team. “I have to compliment her, and it was clear the collaboration was working for Roger’s play. June impresses me as a young director of remarkable clarity and discipline and an unusual respect for the text.”
Perhaps her respect for the written word came from her days as a political science major at Brown University, where she planned to be a lawyer before being seduced by English literature, finally succumbing to playwriting under the tutelage of Paula Vogel. This led to a love affair with all aspects of theater that she enjoys today.
She jumped successfully into acting and was accepted as a member of the Actors Studio. Carryl describes the philosophy of art she gained there. “It is about a holistic way of working — constantly paying attention to the reality and truth of the situation and never straying from that. You also want to be attentive to language, which is the key issue of the character. It is easy to fall in love with emotion. It is easy to fall in love with the idea that sex drives every character. But what I learned at the Studio is that your character is so much deeper and richer than that. If you fall too much in love with any one thing and leave off the others, your story is going to be uneven. When you have a playwright who is particularly good at infusing language with action, the words naturally lead an actor to do something [and] it’s easy to fall in love with some aspect of acting.”
Carryl found just that kind of playwright in Mason. “Onion Creek is heartfelt without being melodramatic. Roger has this ability to lead actors to certain behaviors. He suggests a lot more rather than hitting it right on the head. His work is very evocative, very emotional. For someone who is as intellectually gifted as Roger, his work runs deep with passion. He is also very funny.Â I get the humor but it is very subtle. If you are not careful and paying attention to the language, you can miss it. I bring an openness and appreciation of his very smart sense of humor.”
She is fairly new to directing, but she finds it the perfect fit for theatrical life. “I have been assistant directing for years, but have been flying on my own for two. I have to live in the performing arts.Â When I am not writing or acting, I want to stay close to it. I sort of realized a few years ago that I really enjoy looking at the storytelling from an outsider’s perspective. In rehearsals I found myself thinking the way directors do. What I have discovered is that I am really comfortable telling a story from a director’s point of view. What’s amazing about acting is that you get to live and walk and talk in somebody else’s body and life. What’s amazing about writing, is you get to create somebody else’s life. As a director you get to paint on this really big canvas.”
The resulting picture on this canvas depends on the partnership between Carryl and Mason and their mutual appreciation of magical realism — an artistic license to explore both fantasy and reality in the same work.
Onion Creek, presented by Padua Playwrights in association with Son Of Semele Theater.Â Opens Dec. 3. Plays Fri.- Sat. 8 pm; Sun. at 4 pm. Through Dec. 11. Tickets: $10-20. Son Of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA. http://www.onioncreekplay.com or https://sonofsemele.secure.force.com/ticket.
***All Onion Creek production photos by Abdullah Helwani