Nathaniel G. Nesmith

The Life of a Playwright: An Interview with Steve Carter

Nonfiction from NER 37.2

“Crystal Ladder” Linny Freeman 1365 E. Canton Ct. Deerfield, Illinois 60015 United States 847-331-9111 coaledesign@yahoo.comSteve Carter (Horace E. Carter Jr.), also known professionally as steve carter, was born in New York City in 1929. His father was an African-American longshoreman raised in Richmond, Virginia, and his mother was from Trinidad. He graduated from New York City’s High School of Music and Art in 1948 and began his career as a play­wright at the American Community Theatre in 1965, with a production of his short play Terraced Apartment (which would later become the longer play Terraces). His dark comedy, One Last Look, was produced off-off-Broad­way in 1967 before he went on to work for the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), the leading black theater com­pany during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In addition to being literary manager/dramaturge, Carter ultimately became responsible for NEC’s Playwrights Workshop. During those same years, NEC produced the first two plays of his “Caribbean trilogy”—Eden (1975) and Nevis Mountain Dew (1978)—which explored Caribbean immigrant fami­lies living in Manhattan.

Carter left NEC in 1981 and became the first playwright-in-residence at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, where the last of the trilogy, Dame Lorraine (1981), was produced. Other plays produced at the Victory Gardens Theater include House of Shadows (1984), the musical Shoot Me While I’m Happy (1986), and Pecong (1990). Carter also served as playwright-in-residence at George Mason University, and his play Spiele ’36 or the Fourth Medal (1991) had its world premiere at Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University. Pecong, a Caribbean retelling of Euripides’ Medea, had successive productions at London’s Tricycle Theatre, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and Newark Symphony Hall.

Carter, who became a Dramatists Guild member in the 1970s, has received many awards for his writ­ing, including the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. He is also a recipient of honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. In 2001, he received the Living Legend Award at the National Black Theatre Festival.

I originally sat down with Carter at his home in Queens in January 2011 and followed up by phone the follow­ing July; Carter was by then living in Houston, Texas. The third and final part of the interview took place via phone in May 2014.



[read the interview here]

Nathaniel G. Nesmith holds an MFA in playwriting and a PhD in theater from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Marymount Manhattan College, City College of New York, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and recently completed his Creating Connections Consortium Postdoctoral Fellowship at Middlebury College. He has published articles in American Theatre, the Dramatist, Drama Review, the New York Times, Yale Review, African American Review, and other publications.

Linny Coale Freeman is a unique artist and designer of paintings on silk fabrics, painted silk fashion accessories for women, and public art pieces. Her vibrant colors and bold designs take us on unique and magical journeys, creating pathways of light and space. Linny has a BFA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute, and a BFA in graphic design from Kendall College of Art and Design. She is on the faculty at The Art Center of Highland Park, IL and The Evanston Art Center of Evanston, IL. Please visit Linny’s website at


Laurence de Looze

An Atheist in Rome

Nonfiction from NER 36.4.

Rome_Mercury_ReliefTermini, the Rome train station, has always had the reputation of being a haunt for pickpockets. The rumors are true, and yet I’ve always felt exhilarated when arriving at the station from the airport, dragging my suitcase out onto the big square in front of the station, where all the buses stop. The Piazza dei Cinquecento, which literally means “the sixteenth-century plaza,” is bustling with people all day and a good part of the night. Taxis are lined up, buses are pulling out. All of Rome is before me.

For the past decade or so, whenever I’ve gone to Rome, I’ve stayed with my lawyer friend Ugo. I was arriving now to spend three or four months working in the libraries of Rome. As it happened, Ugo lived only a few blocks from the train station, in the Via Cavour. 

Every Italian city has a Via Cavour, named for the nineteenth-century politician who was the Count of Cavour. In Rome the Via Cavour is a broad avenue that leads away from the train station and gradually descends to the Coliseum a couple of kilometers away. It is lined with shops and large hotels, and the traffic is intense. In Rome the Via Cavour is also known as the avenue down which all the political demonstrations pass. Every time there is a strike—and in Italy this is very often—the striking workers march down the Via Cavour carrying large banners and shouting slogans.

No matter the weight of my suitcase, I’ve always felt a kind of delight when coming out from the station onto the piazza, then turning down the Via Cavour, knowing that in a matter of minutes I would enter the majestic apartment building in which Ugo Vitagliano, avvocato, lived on one of the top floors. Ugo had been there for decades—his law offices on the fifth floor and his expansive apartment just above, on the sixth. When I met him, he had already been retired for a number of years, though he would occasionally take on some legal work for a friend or a friend of a friend. Though he had traveled a great deal—and in fact he spoke pretty good French—he was very much a Roman: born and bred in Rome, he had lived and worked there his whole life. He had handled real estate deals and divorces, had dealt with judges and criminals, had done pro bono work. He had been a young boy under Mussolini, a pre-adolescent during World War II, and had come of age during the hard years just after the War. He had seen enough bad people to be wary and enough good ones to still have some faith in humanity.

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Laurence de Looze publishes fiction, essays, and books on a variety of topics. A US native, he has lived in Canada for two decades. His fiction has appeared in Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Ontario Review, and other journals, and his travel essay, “The Piano Is Always There: A Story of Lisbon,” was published in NER 35.4.

Mukund Belliappa

A Natural History of Colonialism

Nonfiction from NER 36.3

CurzonIn 1875 the Indian tiger (Panthera tigris) was rechristened the Royal Bengal Tiger—first by the Calcutta press and then by the rest of the world—in honor of the enthusiasm shown by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in hunting it during his eight-month tour of India. If naturalists seek a single event that doomed the fate of this species they could point to Edward’s expeditions. Of course, Edward alone cannot be blamed. Tiger hunting had always been a colonial favorite, and the Victorians (who devoured publications like The Oriental Shooting MagazineThe Bengal Sporting Magazine, and The Indian Sporting Review at clubs around India) had turned it into a rite of passage. Like any good politician or celebrity, Edward was merely stamping with approval a widely enjoyed sport. After Edward’s trip, however, a regrettable fashion took hold. While the Indian tiger had merely been hunted, the Royal Bengal Tiger was massacred.

Perhaps the recent widespread availability of George Eastman’s cumbersome but portable camera also had something to do with it. Suddenly, all around the subcontinent, Victorians were eager to be photographed with their feet proudly planted on “Stripes.” What is sport without measurements and records? Rowland Ward’s The Sportsman’s Handbook to Practical Collecting, Preserving, and Artistic Setting-up of Trophies and Specimens (first published in 1880 with new editions almost every year through the end of the century) carried instructions on how to arrange the tiger’s carcass for measurement. The dead beast was to be tugged (at the nose and tail) to a straight line before fixing the four pegs: the tip and root of the tail, the nape of the neck and the nose.

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Mukund Belliappa grew up in various parts of India and has lived in the US since attending graduate school at UT Austin, where he studied engineering, mathematics, and creative writing. Belliappa’s essays have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, and Rain Taxi. A sizeable portion of his reading and writing over the past decade has been in colonial history. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and two Malinois.

Paula Schwartz

Big LIfe, Little Death

Nonfiction from NER 36.3

829d24cfOn se comprend à demi-mots. “We understand each other with half words, without finishing our sentences.” I learned this French expression from Fanny. It describes a kind of meeting of the minds, parallel sensibilities—each of us not merely anticipating or knowing what the other is thinking, but actually thinking alike at the same time, sharing the same reaction. It was a good way of describing our personal connection. Fanny remarked how striking it was that such complicity could exist between a young American student, born after the war, and a Polish-born Viennese refugee, French resister, survivor of two concentration camps, and lifelong Communist Party activist.

Fanny and I met in April 1978, on a train from Paris to East Berlin, for a pilgrimage to Ravensbrück, the only concentration camp for women, for the most part political prisoners. The pilgrimage, as it was (and is still) known, was an annual event organized by the Amicale de Ravensbrück, the association of former women prisoners that formed in 1945 for the purpose of educating the public about the camp, supporting the survivors, lobbying the government for recognition and benefits. Like the other amicales, or “friendship associations,” it was part of a network united by the umbrella organization FNDIRP, the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots. I was in Paris with a year-long fellowship to study the role of women in the French Resistance. Having contacted the organization in an effort to locate and interview women resisters, I met with its director, Cécile Lesieur. The timing was excellent; it so happened that some eighty survivors of Ravensbrück would soon be traveling to the camp for a pilgrimage. Cécile Lesieur invited me to join them. I could meet the members myself and visit the camp for the first time.

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Paula Schwartz is the Lois B. Watson Professor of French Studies at Middlebury College and a scholar of World War II France and the Resistance movement.

Jill Sisson Quinn

Big Night

Nonfiction from NER 36.1

[view as PDF] US contains more species of salamander than any other country, but in an entire lifetime you may never encounter one. Salamanders—secretive, fossorial, nocturnal—exit underground harbors only in darkness. Even those that gather in great masses to breed do so without a sound, moving monk-like through the yammering of wood frogs and spring peepers to ephemeral ponds.

In the country’s eastern half, many folks would be surprised to find they share their neighborhoods with Ambystoma maculatum, the spotted salamander, a creature that looks like it belongs in the Amazon. Two uneven rows of big, bright yellow dots extend from head to tail on its dark, glossy body, a body I have always thought looks purple, though most field guides describe it as steel gray or black. Spotteds are stout and medium-sized; at four to seven inches long, they look like they’d make a good meal for something. But they’re not easy to find. Scientists tracking them with radio telemetry, through tiny transmitters surgically implanted into the salamanders’ midsections, discovered one spotted salamander living four feet underground. To find one of these brightly colored animals beneath a rock or within a log feels like hitting the jackpot.

My interest in salamanders renewed with surprising force the same spring my husband and I began the process of adopting a child. I had recently moved away from an area of high salamander density (from New Jersey, which has sixteen species, to Wisconsin, which has only seven) and ceased teaching environmental education; instead I was teaching English and spending my workdays indoors. Nevertheless, I aimed to be present for the annual nocturnal mass breeding of the spotted. There was a chance I would see them and a chance I wouldn’t, these creatures that seemed scarce but were relatively numerous, that lived singly all year long but on a single evening gathered in multitudes. It was just this odd combination of uncertainty and possibility that I would need to embrace in my journey to becoming a parent.

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Jill Sisson Quinn’s essays have appeared in Orion, Ecotone, OnEarth, and many other magazines. She has received the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, a John Burroughs Essay Award, and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Science & Nature Writing 2011. Her first book, Deranged, was published by Apprentice House of Loyola University Maryland in 2010. A regular commentator for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series, she lives and writes in Scandinavia, Wisconsin.

Chris Nelson

Speaking of Neil Young

Nonfiction from NER 35.4

doc00796420150107153744 copy[View as PDF]

As a junior in high school I found myself humming along to Neil Young’s “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” whenever the local classic rock station decided to take a break from Aerosmith or Boston or AC/ DC. Senior year I’d take the scenic route home from football practice while blaring Harvest Moon in the used Mustang I shared with my older brother, driving past the cornfields just as the setting sun made them glow and feeling nostalgic for the innocence I had yet to lose. First semester of college I was getting high to his 1969 self-titled solo debut, and by spring I waited for rainy days to wallow in my loneliness with the haunting On the Beach, playing it over and over on an old turntable of my father’s that I had restored.

In accordance with the natural progression of other Neil faithfuls, it wasn’t until I had exhausted this mostly acoustic, more accessible singer/songwriter side of Neil Young that I was able to graduate to an appreciation of his electric work—the highest and most challenging level a Neil faithful can reach. And it took me even longer to fall in love with it. Only recently have I begun to figure out why: his style of playing, with its wailings and repetitions and clutter and incoherence, is my style of speaking. Like his guitar, I stutter.

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Chris Nelson is a writer living in New York City.

Laurence de Looze

A Story of Lisbon

Nonfiction from NER 35.4

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For the past several months I have been living with my partner, Aara, in the old Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal. A maze of tiny alleyways that turn into stairways as the streets climb up the steep hills from the Tejo river, the Alfama was once a Moorish quarter. Tucked behind the Sé, the city’s squat cathedral, the neighborhood survived the 1755 earthquake pretty much intact, and today it is one of the oldest areas of Lisbon. It is a very humble neighborhood—there are pensioners here whose already meager checks are being reduced by the government on an almost regular basis—though I wouldn’t call it “poor” outright. The people who live in the dark little dwellings that crowd these streets love the Alfama. They cannot afford to live elsewhere, but they don’t want to. Most of them were born in the apartments they live in now. Some of them have probably never even been outside the city limits.

Because the cobblestone streets are so narrow and can become escadinhas (steps) at any turn, it is impossible for a vehicle with wheels to get through. Everything is done on foot, and everything is carried in and out, up and down the hill, by hand. At first I thought that this would be inconvenient, even impossible. But I soon adapted to what feels like a nineteenth-century pace of life, and it has become endearing to me, even when I’m carrying provisions and trudging up the hill under a hot sun.

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Laurence de Looze publishes fiction, essays, and books on a variety of topics, including medieval literature. A native US citizen, he has lived for years in Canada where he teaches a variety of university courses. His fiction has appeared in Antioch Review and Ontario Review, and his book The Letter and the Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press. He is sorely tempted to move permanently to Portugal.

Richard Tillinghast

Eastward Bound, Across a Storied Landscape

Nonfiction from NER 35.3.

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Leaving Portland, with its microbreweries, Pacific Rim restaurants, lumberjack chic, and drive-through coffee stations, I drove east along the Columbia River Gorge on the first leg of a four-thousand-mile trip that would take me to northern Michigan and then down to South Carolina and Tennessee. The Gorge’s mist-wreathed granite cliffs, rising above the onrush of the Columbia River, look as though they could have been painted by a Chinese landscape artist from the Tang Dynasty. In late-afternoon light the stone takes on a purple glow. Taoist hermits might be meditating in caves up in those hills.

Above White Salmon, Washington, where I spent my first night, pioneer days had not, it seemed, entirely ended. As I drove up precipitous roads that reached up from the Columbia River to my nephew’s house, where I would spend the night, some of the hillsides had that desolate, shredded look that follows clear-cutting. One little house partway up, a shack really, was flanked on one side by a pile of rough-cut logs, each about the length of an American car from the fifties. It looked as though the householder had wrangled them there for sizing into smaller chunks as fuel was needed during the long winter. The month was May, but a cutting wind sliced across the steep hills. My nephew and I took his son, six years old, to his baseball game down in the town of White Salmon. The diamond, with its boys’ and girls’ coach-pitch three-inning game, and the pure Americanness of the scene, were thrown into perspective by the massive, timeless hills, verdant with the spring rains, towering above it.

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Richard Tillinghast is the author of twelve books of poetry and four of creative nonfiction. His Selected Poems came out from Dedalus Press in Ireland in 2009. He was a 2010-2011 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. His latest nonfiction book is An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul (Haus Publishing, 2012), which was published in the UK and nominated for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. Tilinghast, who lived in Ireland for five years, returned to the States in 2011 and now divides his time between Sewanee, Tennessee and the Big Island of Hawaii.

Natasha Lvovich

Sister in Russian, Cousin in English

Nonfiction from NER 35.3

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She is walking on Park Avenue, elegant and slim, irreproachably fashionable, drumming Sinatra’s “New York, New York” with her high heels. Her allure is businesslike and confident: she is focused on her destination, on the potholes in the asphalt, and on countless rushed yet important thoughts, while at the same time she talks into her phone. Only real Manhattanites, fortunate to have been born on this celebrated land—firmly grounded, perfectly well-oriented, perpetually overbooked, and multitasking with ease—move with such a gait. She murmurs into her phone in a language that has been for centuries, for millennia, for eternity, her own: “Honey, don’t wait for me, just order yourself some Chinese. I’ll be home in a little while. Yeah, I know, I know. I’ll get you some. Love you.”

The trace of a Russian accent is almost imperceptible. Thank goodness for those caramel English words, which make her a different person and a different mother than her own, less dramatic and less rough around the edges, with the sweetened texture of an American mom raised in an Upper West Side apartment. She looks at her watch; she checks her messages; she passes her hand over her platinum hair as if to make sure the makeover hasn’t melted away.

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Natasha Lvovich is a writer and scholar of bilingualism and of translingual literature—literature written in non-native language. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Lvovich teaches academic and creative writing at City University of New York. She is the author of a collection of autobiographical narratives, The Multilingual Self (Routledge, 1997). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Life Writing, New Writing, Big.City.Lit, Post Road, Paradigm, Nashville Review, and Epiphany, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Kate Lebo

The Loudproof Room

Nonfiction from NER 35.2.

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An Earmoir

I was born with a strawberry hemangioma splashed over the bottom half of my right ear and two inches down my neck. The sort of red that has purple trapped inside it. A swollen, shocking hue. For the first year, I had no hair to disguise it. The sight of me made strangers uncomfortable.

My birthmark was so red and angry and I cried so murderously when my parents bathed it that it became, as I grew, the explanation for a lot of things. Why I was teased in school, why I cried easily. Why I couldn’t hear conversational tones out of my right ear.

By the time I was ten the skin faded to a mottle of mostly normal looking tissue. It looks enough like a burn scar that no one asks what happened. Mostly I forget it’s there. When a new friend asks me “what’s up with your ear?” I need a second to remember what she’s talking about. My father and I were in a motorcycle accident when I was five, I say. It tore my ear half off. When she looks sorry for asking, I tell her I was born this way. Which isn’t exactly the truth. If it was, I’d still have a stoplight for an ear.

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Kate Lebo’s poems and prose have appeared in Best New Poets, the Rumpus, Gastronomica, Willow Springs, and Poetry Northwest. She is also the author of two books about the folk art of pie-making, A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press, 2013) and Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter (Sasquatch Books, 2014). She teaches writing workshops nationally. For more, visit