Steve 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.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith: You started out as a set designer. Did you learn that at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan?
Steve Carter: I was not trained as a set designer, but that was the first thing I was attracted to in theater. I was taken to see my first play in 1938. I didn’t know what the play was about. What fascinated me was the set design—the stuff coming down from the flies and out of the wings. I determined then that that was what I wanted to do. I was still under ten, and I started to make models of sets. My mother was very tolerant. We had these things all over the house. I guess today people would call them dioramas. They were three-dimensional original designs. I did them for amusement and to show off in front of friends and playmates. I would get them to come up and look at the sets and they would all say, “That’s cute. Let’s go outside and play.” That kind of disappointed me. One day, those scale-model figures in my sets said words. I always remember the first words I had a scale-model figure say: “Get your black hands off me.” All of my playmates started to pay attention to the sets then. The words were keeping them there, so I started making up words as I went along. When I went to Music and Art, which was much later, I studied all forms of art—I really learned how to draw there.
NGN: How did you eventually become a playwright? Was Terraced Apartment (1965), which later became Terraces (1974), your first play?
SC: My first play was As You Can See. That play took place at the American Community Theatre and I was with a group of burgeoning artists. I called myself a playwright but I don’t think anybody really believed it. I really didn’t believe it. Actually, my first play was called Hugo Jones. I still have a copy of it, hidden. I would never let anybody see it.
NGN: You just mentioned the American Community Theatre. Can you talk a bit about that and your work with Maxwell Glanville, from 1961 to 1966?
SC: Maxwell Glanville was the founder and artistic director. I didn’t know what any of those things meant at the time, but Max was a wonderful teacher. The first thing he taught was not to be afraid of the stage and how not to look like a fool on the stage. At the time, he was in the cast of Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. He gave us a chance to do everything. I was a set designer, a costume designer, a prop master there. Max got us jobs with Phoebe Brand [the actress], doing theater in the street. We went around to all five boroughs and did two plays, plays I wouldn’t have chosen to do in the street. We did Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, for one. We had very interesting experiences, including in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a mattress was thrown down on us and just missed. A fight broke out between two people at one point. Two guys were using trashcan covers as shields, and one of them had a baby in his arms. These people were fighting with knives. We had to duck all of that. Desmond Wilson, who later became well known because of the television show Sanford and Son, was one of the crew members. David Downing, who was later in the Negro Ensemble Company, was one of the crew members. Walt Jones, a fellow playwright, was with us. It got to the point where we just said we were not going back out there unless we had on helmets.
NGN: You were the scenic designer for Hal DeWindt’s 1962 play Raisin’ Hell in the Son. What was that experience like for you?
SC: You know it used to be the practice that when a Broadway show closed, all the set was taken over some to place in New Jersey and burned so that no one else could take it. We just went out there before anybody got to it and collected a whole lot of stuff before they burned it. I put it together and Hal called me the scenic designer, and it got my name in the New York Times for the first time. It said, Steve Carter, set designer and, I think, house manager. I didn’t think it was ever going to be serious and that I’d make a living from it. I was working 9 to 5 toward my pension and this was something I did after five o’clock. I just thought we were having a lot of fun. There were some people who did object to it, though, because we were spoofing Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun.
NGN: In your early play Terraces, you have four scenes in which love emerges in different scenarios with different couples. In one scene, a soon-to-be-married couple determines that they are not right for each other—yet they plan to continue having sex together. In another, an elderly couple decides that they want to make love. In a third scene, a husband pushes his cheating wife off the terrace. And in the fourth, a mother, her two sons, and two daughters-in-law have planned to murder a wino. I gather that it is something they always do on her birthday. The mother decides to do this because she, now upper class, feels that the lower-class blacks have kept blacks from progressing. Can you talk a bit about your play and what motivated you to write it?
SC: This was the time when high-rise architecture was coming to Harlem, with the Lenox Terrace, Esplanade Gardens, and other places. One of the actors in the American Community Theatre just had to move as these buildings opened up. He’d always wanted to move into a building with a terrace. He was willing to leave one place and move into another place in Harlem, just to say he had the current address.
I started to think there are many people moving into these terrace apartments who really are not right for them—not right for that kind of life. There was a lot of skullduggery going on in those apartments because the people—and this is strictly my opinion—a lot of them were not ready for those apartments. The first couple you meet, they do not have a terrace, they cannot afford it. And this is their ambition—to have a terrace. The management tells them they can move in and maybe later they can move up. The old couple, simple people, are used to just sitting on the porch, and they think of the terrace as “the porch.” They can’t understand why their children do not come to see them. They thought by moving in there they would please their modern children. They want to appear to be right for that apartment, when actually they are better than that apartment. They had a better life where they lived before. Then with the next couple, the guy finds his wife to be unfaithful and pushes her off the terrace. And all the rest of the couples see this. Some of them actually see the body of the woman who was pushed flying by the window.
NGN: What about the last scene, in which the mother discovers that the wino they plan to kill is actually the father of her two successful sons?
SC: I was very much influenced by a play by Richard Wesley [The Past Is the Past], which reflected what I was thinking at the time. You see people getting ahead, and you pull them back. The woman raised her two children to think it was people like this, winos and junkies, who held us back from taking a good place in all of society.
NGN: Lorraine Hansberry has been praised for opening doors for many black playwrights. Who are some of the other playwrights from the 1950s and 1960s that inspired or influenced you?
SC: Well, the first black playwright I heard of was Ted Ward. I am not going to say I was particularly inspired by him or by Hansberry. I just wanted to write what I wanted to write. I wasn’t writing for my stuff to be produced on a large scale; I was writing for the American Community Theatre and figured it would go no further than that. Mainly, I was writing for my family and friends.
There are playwrights that I admired, but if you really want to know who my idols are, they are—not necessarily in this order—Tennessee Williams, William Shakespeare, and Stephen Sondheim. Shakespeare—he got all of the talent that was to be given out. Shakespeare is the person I admire most. I try to do something of his, paraphrasing something of his or of Tennessee Williams’s. There is homage to them in everything I do.
NGN: Why Stephen Sondheim?
SC: If I should ever get to another planet before anyone else does—if there are people who don’t know of him—I will tell them I am Sondheim. And that I wrote everything that he has written. I will take credit. The sextet in A Little Night Music is as good as anything that Mozart ever wrote. He changed the face of the American theater and I don’t say black theater, I don’t say white theater, I say American musical theater. He’s put things on the stage that have never been put there before, and he’s managed to do it through music and verse and rhyme. I think his stuff is just brilliant. I do long for the day when he would have more black people available to do his productions. I mean right now, Audra McDonald does his work, but it’s never been written for her. You know the work she does, the songs she sings, have all been written with white people in mind. And that’s nobody’s fault; that’s who he is, that’s who he writes for. Just as I write for who I write for. He can’t be faulted for that. Still, for instance, if he wrote a play about New York, you want to say, “My God, isn’t there one black person?” It’s almost like a Woody Allen movie; you see a Woody Allen movie and you want to say, “My God, there are no black people on the street.”
NGN: You worked at the Negro Ensemble Company starting in the late sixties under Lonne Elder. What was that experience like and what did you learn from him?
SC: When I came to NEC, all the plays sent to the NEC were sent to Lonne Elder—so I guess he was the official play reader. When I started to work for him, I was still working my nine-to-five job. I was filing those plays and, generally, I had to read them. After Lonne had success with his play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and was leaving he told me, “Steve, you are now head of the playwrights’ workshop.” I learned as much from the playwrights in the workshop as I think they learned from me. We learned together. Many black playwrights were out there—white playwrights, too—and they were all sending their plays to the NEC.
NGN: While at the NEC, were there any scripts that you were quite proud of, one that you picked out?
SC: I first read The River Niger. I also read In the Deepest Part of Sleep by Charles Fuller. I gave them to Doug [Douglas Turner Ward, NEC founder and artistic director], and he decided to put them on.
NGN: Are there any plays that got away from you guys—plays that you thought afterward that you should have produced, say, by radical playwrights? Amiri Baraka, for example?
SC: We did Joseph Walker’s play [The River Niger]—that was radical. If you are thinking of people like Ed Bullins, he never sent us anything. The New Lafayette was producing his plays. Baraka’s plays were being done at the St. Mark’s Playhouse before the NEC was a reality. I saw The Slave and The Toilet at the St. Mark’s Playhouse. So, he was on the scene long before we came into existence.
NGN: In your Caribbean trilogy—Eden (1975), Nevis Mountain Dew (1978), and Dame Lorraine (1981)—incapacitation is a major function of the dramas. Why did you write about a physical rather than, let’s say, a mental defect?
Steve Carter: In Eden, the reason why the boy next door is so big is to make the father look that much smaller in stature. And the father, who was played by Graham Brown in the original production, goes up against all of those big things. The woman in Eden says he walks through the forbidden neighborhood and none of the Irish people bother him. He is a man who is lame and yet he is still a fighter for his ideas. His goal is to get back to Africa.
In Nevis Mountain Dew, the man is totally incapacitated and he is also based on a real person, a Jewish lawyer I took care of when I was a hospital orderly. He was the most brilliant man I ever came in contact with and he is responsible in a great way for my being a playwright, and actually saying I am a playwright. He just kind of took over my life. I willingly let him take over my life. I was willing to do things for this man because his mind so captivated me. He was totally incapacitated from the neck down; he was in an iron lung. His mind never failed. He was a lawyer for Paramount Studios. When the staff decided all polio patients were going to be shipped over to Goldwater Memorial Hospital, on what is now Roosevelt Island, I was going to quit my job and go over there with him to make sure people were doing the right thing for him. He didn’t want me to do that. He said, “If you do that, I’ll have you fired.”
I came in to work one day. There was no iron lung and no oscillating bed, and I said, “What happened? What happened?” He’d been taken to Goldwater Memorial but he’d left something for me. He left a wire recorder, a big thing at the time, and a note that he got somebody to write. “Get on about the business of writing.” That’s all it said. I went over to Goldwater Memorial to see him a couple of times. I was very much pleased when his wife came to see Nevis. The story is completely different from what his life was like. I asked his wife if she wanted to meet the cast. She didn’t, but she wanted the actor who played the wife to know that she understood what that character was going through, because she had gone through it herself. Two years ago, I was very pleased that the man’s son, now a grown-up himself and a lawyer, sought me out to talk about his father. He looked so much like his father that it scared me. We have become acquaintances. He found a letter that I had written to his mother.
NGN: Dame Lorraine has the sensibility of a Greek tragedy—and we will talk more about Greek tragedy later—but what was the premise for this one, about a family who has lost all of their sons, except one?
SC: Also, it’s based on an event from real life. It is based on a family of spectacular-looking black men. People in the neighborhood used to wonder, “God, how do they get such good-looking children?” Those guys were so spectacularly handsome, the girls used to fall when they saw them—and they were the worst guys. I recall one incident that always stays with me. They came around to my elementary school once and they ganged up on me and took my pants off and hung them on the lamppost. But they really wanted just to steal my school composition notebook. Their parents did not have the money to buy it for them. They stole so they could go to school. I remember one girl said, when the rest of the kids were laughing at the fact I had my pants taken off, “They hung his clothes on the lamppost so he couldn’t chase them.” I had no idea of chasing those guys. She made me seem more like a hero because she said I couldn’t chase them.
NGN: In Eden you pit West Indians against black Americans. It is 1927 and you provided a love story between a Southern black man and a young West Indian woman whose father, a Garveyite, is against the relationship. Why was it important to explore the West Indian’s sensibility? And also why was it important for you to deal with black-on-black racism?
SC: Well, it is autobiographical. My father was born in New Orleans but was raised in Virginia. He was seventeen when he came to New York, to San Juan Hill. My mother was born in Trinidad but came to this country when she was three. The relationship was not thought well of at the time. You can say the child waiting to be born in the play, that’s me. But don’t forget, before Eden was ever written, the same theme existed in Romeo and Juliet.
NGN: Can you talk a bit about how African-American blacks received your plays compared with blacks of Caribbean ancestry living in the US?
SC: I think the two plays done at the NEC, Eden and Nevis Mountain Dew, united both communities in acceptance of the plays. Each side saw a rationale in the other side. I recall somebody said, when the father has his speech in Eden, where he talks about the difference between American blacks and Caribbean blacks, “God damn it, I hate him but he is right.” It is a speech that I am quite proud I wrote because of its reception, especially the reception by men.
NGN: Could you talk a bit about the contempt West Indians had and still have for American blacks, i.e., the division between the two groups?
SC: I wouldn’t say contempt. There was a lot of confusion. There was a lot of misunderstanding, whether you were from the West Indies or from here. Originally, we all came from another place. We had a common enemy. People should have been banding together. We would have been further advanced than where we are. The cause of the division was that people from the West Indies mostly had the benefit of an English education—not the best English education, but an English one, which in some ways was better than the education here. People of my age were not told a lot of things in school. If we had just realized that we were all the same people earlier, there would not have been so much division.
NGN: In your plays, you are dealing with a lot of heavy, difficult material: race, murder, rape, hatred, bitterness, revenge, forgiveness, etc. Can you talk a bit about all of this, the themes, issues, and subjects throughout all of your plays?
SC: This is the stuff you see around you all the time. I don’t think I have put in any of my plays something that I have not experienced myself, or known people close to me to have experienced. I think of my own life as not particularly harsh, but there were some downers. I have enormous respect for my friends, particularly friends in my own family, which is not a large family. We have come through a lot together; there is a lot of love there. I have to write about these things, but not exactly in the way they happened. I don’t want to hurt people. So, I do it metaphorically.
NGN: There is also a great deal of comedy—laugh-out-loud comedy. How do you approach comedy as opposed to tragedy?
SC: People come to the theater to escape their own lives. Why get them into the theater to see nothing but despair? There is always something to laugh at. Something good can come out of every dark situation.
NGN: How do you make it work?
SC: I don’t know about that. [He laughs.] I have been told that sometimes it does not work. I, myself, am a great believer in melodrama. When I see those little white handkerchiefs come out, and people are dabbing at their eyes, I say, “I got ’em!” I like to write plays that people can react to like when they are in their homes by themselves watching television.
I loved my mother’s reaction to my plays. First of all, she could not quite get it that I had written the words. There were a couple of my plays that she went to where I sat next to her. Not Eden. I didn’t want to see her go through that. I was kind of cowardly about that. But for other things, I sat near her. She would turn to me in disbelief and say, “Did you hear what she said?” I would say, “Yeah, Ma, I wrote it.” She would say she had forgotten.
NGN: You designed the costumes for Phillip Hayes Dean’s The Sty of the Blind Pig (1972) at the NEC. Could you discuss this experience and what it was like to work with Phillip?
SC: We did a lot of things down there because we had to. One day, Doug said, “Steve, get them some costumes; we don’t have the money to pay a costume designer.” Doug knew a little of my artistic training at the High School of Music and Art. So I did that. We did a lot of things at the NEC that we had to do because nobody else was there to do it. The opening night of Eden, when the critic of the New Yorker, Edith Oliver, came in I was operating the elevator. She said, “Steve, you are operating the elevator on your opening night?” I told her that if I did not operate the elevator, she was not going to get upstairs. It was that simple.
NGN: Can you discuss the failures and successes of the NEC as a black institution?
SC: Well, we needed money. If we had more money, we could have done everything we wanted to. When we did Frederick Douglass . . . Through His Own Words, we didn’t have the money to get the script reproduced. We had to do it in the office. Doug’s secretary typed the script. She would hand the pages to somebody and that person would hand the pages to me and I would put them through the Xerox machine. We worked on that play until five in the morning. All of us were on unemployment. We put on that play and the set consisted of three chairs that were made by the tech director, who was white—he was also on unemployment. For costumes, Doug said, “Steve, go to the Army and Navy store and buy some jeans and denim jackets.” And those were the costumes. I think the cooperation that we had was such a highlight. It was a play that very few people came to see. I always thought of that as a highlight of our solidarity. All of us were down there working and not a complaint in the bunch.
NGN: What did you learn from your experience at NEC that rewarded your career as a dramatist?
SC: I have to say, the NEC is one of the two or three theaters responsible for me. First of all, it’s American Community Theatre run by Maxwell Glanville. Max, in particular, prepared me for the NEC. The NEC prepared me to go out into the world beyond black theater. The NEC was really, from the time I was there, which was 1967 to 1981, the greatest experience of my life. I was nothing but happy there. I would say there were disappointments—there were things that went wrong, but I was happy with those things. I felt safe, I felt comfortable, I felt at home, and you know you don’t always feel satisfied with your home. I felt very well protected while I was there; I felt very well educated while I was there.
NGN: Religion seems to play a major role in your plays.
SC: If people see a religious aspect in my plays, that’s up to them. I only ask people to do one thing as far as my play is concerned, and that is to take the play home with them. I think all plays should be taken home with people. If a person comes to see a play and enjoys it and claps at the theater but forgets the play once he has left the theater, that to me is not a successful play.
NGN: Do you do research for your plays?
SC: Mostly not, but for some I have to. For example, Spiele ’36 , I had to research that because it is about the 1936 Olympics. But that play was not my idea. That was the result of a man [Stanley Brechner] who was actually the artistic director of both the American Jewish Theater and the National Jewish Theater, simultaneously. He came to see my play House of Shadows in 1986 and asked if I would write a play for the Jewish Theater. And he actually told me what it would be about. It was a commissioned work. It would be about the two Jewish athletes who were on the American team with Jesse Owens in 1936 but were not allowed to run because they were Jewish. It was thought that if they had a Jewish win, a Jewish gold medal, that would embarrass Hitler, who was preaching master race at the time.
The material that I was given showed that there were a lot of athletes in Germany who had mysteriously disappeared, or were in concentration camps, or just out of the country. There was a woman there named Gretel Bergmann, who was a world-class high jumper. And everybody expected her to be in the 1936 Olympics—she was nowhere to be found. The Germans at first appeared to allow her to compete but then disqualified her. All this was what I was commissioned to interpret, and I wanted to. Now, how I did that was never using real names, because I was told, and I also read it, that Marty Glickman—one of the two Jewish athletes—said that if anybody ever wrote about what really happened in the locker room, he was going to sue. And I just figured I better stay away from that, so what I would put into the locker room was strictly my idea, my interpretation.
And I can tell you that when the play was done, to my surprise, Marty Glickman actually came to see it, unknown to me. I happened to be in the lobby of the theater while the play was going on—I had seen it quite a few times by this time. I was in the lobby, just lying on a settee that they had there, and I figured that when I heard the applause signifying that the first act was over, I would wake up before the people came out for intermission. I heard the applause and I was just sitting there, and this fellow came up to me and said, “Are you Steve Carter?” I said, “Yes I am.” And he said, “I’m Marty Glickman.” I said, “Oh, my God!” You know who Marty Glickman was; he was the voice of the Knicks and for one of those baseball teams [New York Giants]. He was a big sportscaster, and I said, “Well, how did you find out about this?” He said, “I was in Washington and somebody told me, they’re doing a play about you. You know what you have down there going on in the locker room isn’t what really happened.” I said, “I know it isn’t, because I made it up.” And he said, “I’ll tell you this, though, it’s not exactly what happened but it’s darn close. Why didn’t you use our names or what really happened?” And I said, “I read and I was told that if anybody really wrote the truth, you were going to sue, so I decided to make up stuff.”
Anyway, it was my privilege to meet him and also to send him a copy of the script before he died and to actually hear him tell me that he really liked the play. He liked my interpretation of what happened, because I also based some of my writing on the fact that earlier that same year, Joe Louis had lost the fight to Max Schmeling. That took care of the black athlete as far as Hitler was concerned, because Joe Louis, the foremost American athlete, just happened to be black. So Hitler had nothing to be worried about from the black race because he just thought we were animals anyway, and a German had beaten one, so that was a big plus for him. The only thing that would have been worse was if a Jewish athlete had won a gold medal at the Olympics.
NGN: You have stated that there are autobiographical foundations for many of your plays. You have also said that there are things you could not face, things you could not put down on paper.
SC: There’s something that I do have on paper, that if it is ever produced it will have to be done posthumously—but I had to get it on paper. The only way to stop living with it is to put it down on paper. I don’t want to be Eugene O’Neill-ish about it, but if it is done after my death, that is fine. I still don’t want to talk about the really tragic aspects of my life—things that exist between mother and son and a mother’s life. Really, that was her life, and mother did what she felt she had to do to raise her two children. I will give you an example. There were times when there was no food in the house but bread and milk, but mother fixed it in a way to make that palatable. Treating bread as if it were pudding; putting milk and sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon on just two strips of bread and feeding it to us. I loved it! And it’s stuff that I still eat today. Rice and milk are the very same thing. She’d give us rice and she’d tell us, well, first of all, rice is a cereal. And she would give it to us as a cereal because there was nothing else in the house. I still eat it! As a matter of fact, that’s what I had for breakfast this morning. Every loaf of bread that I get, I save the ends until the last, and I chop it up and I put a sweetener on it, nutmeg and cinnamon, and pour milk over it and eat it and love it. I feel almost obligated to eat that, because it’s what she gave us to survive, and we survived.
NGN: Pecong (1990) is a tale of love, based on Euripides’ tragedy Medea, which deals with revenge and is set on a fictitious Caribbean island during carnival. Many playwrights have done their version of Medea. Why Medea for you, rather than one of the other Greek tragedies?
SC: It’s an island of the mind. That was one of the first plays I saw. I saw it long ago with Dame Judith Anderson when she did Medea, the Robinson Jeffers version. I have always been fascinated by that play. And, of course to do Pecong, I didn’t have to search for a plot. I was doing a residence and I was staying with Dr. Ed Voyce and his family. They were having a party, and a colleague of mine, Michelle Swanson, and another friend were having a conversation about Medea. At the time, there was a Japanese version in Oakland, played by American actors at the university, in the Kabuki style. Michelle was saying that she had seen every kind of Medea including this, the first Kabuki version—but she had never seen a black version. And I told her that I had seen a black one. Joe Papp had presented a black version of the Greek text, with black actors. This was a Summer in the Street Project, back in the 1970s. I just told Michelle, “I think I’ll write one.” That was the genesis of it.
I don’t know Caribbean culture, but I know Caribbean people and their experiences here. I don’t know anything about my family when they were in the Caribbean. I know what they have gone through coming here. I tried to make the language as Shakespearean as I could while keeping it Caribbean. It is not my favorite play but it is the play I had the most fun writing, the play I tried most to prolong during the writing. I wrote most of it in Chicago, during my residency there. When I gave it to the people at the Victory Gardens Theater, I only had the first act written. I could see they were excited by it—I slowly wrote the second act. I had it all down in my mind, notes and things like that, but I really didn’t want to finish, because I was having a great time. The characters in it were people I knew, and they were talking like the people I knew and had grown up with. It is a hard-luck play. At the opening rehearsal in Chicago—we had already cast the play—the artistic director got a phone call. The guy we’d chosen to play the leading man called to say he wasn’t going to do it. When the artistic director called and said we had lost the leading actor, I told him to call Dan Oreskes [a white actor], who had come to the audition. I’d explained to him that this was not a play about black and white but about dark-skinned and light-skinned black people. He wanted to audition anyway. He gave a wonderful audition. He wasn’t that good with the accent but what he did was read the play as it was, and the accent came. I think the man was there before the artistic director hung up the phone. He was good. I am grateful to him that he came in and took the part and did a wonderful job with it.
NGN: Your version of the Medea tragedy, Pecong, is in Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.’s Black Medea: Adaptations for Modern Plays (2013). The book contains Jim Magnuson’s African Medea; Ernest Ferlita’s Black Medea; Silas Jones’s American Medea; Marianne McDonald’s Medea, Queen of Colchester; Edris Cooper’s The Tragedy of Medea Jackson. This anthology offers Medea as a woman of color. What did it mean to you to be among these other versions of Medea?
SC: I’m proud to be in a book with them. However, my play is put in there wrong, and I’m very disappointed in the fact that they chose to put it in there in prose form instead of the verse form in which I wrote it. I went through great pains to write that as I wrote it. It’s supposed to be changed when they come out with the paperback version, but I think the harm has been done. It’s kind of indicative of the harm Pecong always suffers. It’s a play that I myself refer to as the Caribbean play. It is much like Macbeth being referred to as the Scottish play. I rarely say the name of it because with almost every production that I know of, something has happened with it—some bit of misfortune. This also includes the very first production of it, the world premiere, in Chicago: the set caught on fire and also a man in the audience had a heart attack. In one of the succeeding productions at the Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, the actor playing Jason couldn’t go on on opening night because he had been shot in the leg that day. I wasn’t there for it, but what I understand from the director is that the boyfriend of the woman playing Medea came to the house where the cast was living, knocked on the door, rang the bell, and the guy playing Jason answered, and the guy just shot him.
NGN: What about the 2010 production at the National Black Theatre, which seems to have been well received?
SC: All of them have been well received; the reception has never been disappointing. It’s just that something has gone wrong within the production itself. Backstage.
NGN: Even if you consider Pecong a hard-luck play, you must acknowledge that there is vitality in the play. It is the kind of play that people will always go back and do productions of because of the fun, the sensibility, and that element that gets you caught up in the story. There is something current about the play—it makes you feel as if the play is close to you. You don’t feel so distant from it.
SC: I don’t dislike the play, far from it. As I said, it’s the play I had the most fun writing. As far as my plays are concerned, I have to say it stands in a class by itself. But of all my plays, of the realistic plays, Dame Lorraine is my favorite.
NGN: What is it about this play that makes you like it most?
SC: I like the relationship between the old man and his wife, the enduring love between them. And the fact that he’s forgotten a lot of things because of something really tragic that has happened in his life, but the one thing he does not forget is that he loves his woman.
NGN: You were the resident playwright at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. Can you talk about that and how that has influenced your career as a playwright?
SC: I met some very fine people there who are still very close friends. It was interesting to be away from New York and find that there are other ways of thinking outside of New York. I read a lot of plays and realized that there were many similarities; almost everyone had to get themselves down on paper. Basically, what I was there for was to discuss, back and forth, how to structure plays. Everybody was looking for the new format.
NGN: I read something that leads me to believe that you were not in favor of nontraditional casting.
SC: I am not totally in favor of it. When you do an all-black production of A Streetcar Named Desire, what happens to the character in the play called the Negro woman? Tennessee Williams had her there for a specific purpose, living in the Quarter with those people to show that life is slightly different in the Quarter than in the rest of New Orleans. When all the characters are black, how is the Negro woman different? Now, I don’t dispute actors the right to become other people. After all, it is acting. If they want to do a black version of The Cherry Orchard or whatever, that’s fine. They get to play wonderful roles. But can the audience really see the black person as a Russian? Doesn’t this take away from the credibility of the words that the author puts down? I always think of the intent of the authors. You have to pay attention to the authors. They didn’t write those plays for us. In opera, it takes place all the time. I am a fan of opera, but in opera, you must suspend disbelief to enjoy it in the first place.
NGN: You have argued that there are fewer opportunities in the theater now for African-American playwrights than when you started.
SC: There are fewer opportunities for us to have the right to fail. We get to Broadway once in a while but we have to be successful. How we go about that success these days, I don’t know. The Negro Ensemble Company is different today than it was when I was there. Back in the 1970s, almost every black actor came through those doors. They don’t have to do that anymore. They are getting acting training in their colleges and whatnot. I myself have been an adjudicator at American College Theater Festivals.
I recently saw something quite in reverse with one of my plays. The Julliard School presented a production of Pecong that had a thoroughly mixed cast. And each scene was played by a different set of actors, sometimes men playing women and doing it wonderfully, not doing it in drag or being outrageous, being realistic. The very first person to come out in the first scene is a grandmother. I knew all the student actors were young, but I’m saying that this was a fine actor, this woman who was playing the grandmother. I didn’t realize it was a man. All he was doing was playing the character. In another scene, men played the two sisters in the play. They were really fantastic.
NGN: In 2001, you received the Living Legend Award at the National Black Theatre Festival. What did this mean to you?
SC: It meant quite a lot to me. I get shivers when I think about it now because I never thought anything like that would happen to me in the first place. To have made a difference to some people, you’ve got to feel great when you are recognized for that, especially if that was not your intention. The presentation was wonderful. When you think of honors, you think of going into the room and hearing the orchestra play “Pomp and Circumstance” and you figure you are going to see all these people in caps and gowns. Well, the doors opened down there and there were all of these African drummers—I just caught my breath—and all these people dancing. It was a wonderful occasion. I was so glad to be there and to see old friends and to realize that we were on a journey—we had journeyed together. I didn’t realize until then that I owed thanks to so many people.
NGN: If you had to travel this journey again, would you become a playwright?
SC: If I started out now, I would have to just do things the same way. I think that the way things happened is the way they were supposed to be. I believe in that. Everything has been planned by the master planner. Even when you are given a multiple choice, the answer that you choose has been planned by the master planner. It is a case of que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.
NGN: Steve, thank you so very much for this interview. You have the last words!
SC: The last words of a playwright should be, “I’m working on this new play,” which I am.