In keeping with the late trend of sampling diverse literary genres, the Books Unbound (B.U.) group tackled our first play. Beneath the approachable prose of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Joe Turner) lies a complex blend of American history. Filled with references to slavery in the South and the subsequent Great Migration, Wilson forces us to consider whether Herald Loomis – or any of us – can escape the past.
As a very special bonus to this month’s discussion, local Charleston poet and playwright Matt Hampton, who studied playwriting under August Wilson, generously facilitated a fun two-part workshop with the B.U. group!
To see highlights from the Books Unbound playwriting workshop and accompanying discussions, check out the round up below!
MAIN DISCUSSION TOPICS
Joe Turner as an Entry to Plays
Prior to reading Joe Turner, the bulk of the B.U. members’ reading material consisted of novels, punctuated with a smattering of comics, poetry, and nonfiction. While the group was excited to read a new genre – especially after learning how closely related plays are to screenplays – they struggled to fully grasp the many layers of language and history present in the work. Rather than focus on the content in Joe Turner, the group received the highlights of the history in the play, and we instead used it as a launching off point to discuss what it takes to be a successful playwright.
Lessons from August Wilson
Joe Turner‘s fundamental dramatic question – Can a person escape his/her past? – had a particular resonance with the B.U. members, who often speak of turning their own lives around for the better. As we learned, that’s something they have in common with both Wilson, a high school dropout, and Hampton, who shared details of his own troubled youth.
Despite odds that seemed pitted against them, both transcended their circumstances and found a way to do what they love. Through hard work and determination, Wilson became one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights the world over, and Hampton scored the chance to study under the prestigious artist as part of his own literary journey. Hopefully, Wilson’s and Hampton’s personal stories demonstrated that the path to success differs for each person, and that success is within reach even when failure seems imminent.
Part One: Character Building
Since many of the B.U. members were curious about the genesis of a play, Hampton decided to guide them through a group character building exercise. He noted that ideas for plays frequently derive from characters that emerge from playwrights’ imaginations.
Sitting in a circle with the group, Hampton called out a series of questions about a character that anyone was free to answer aloud, such as:
- Male or female?
- How old?
- What does s/he look like?
- What does s/he do for work?
- What does s/he want?
- What does s/he need?
- What is an obstacle that s/he faces?
- How will this character get what s/he needs?
The exercise was fast-paced and high energy, and resulted in a healthy mix of faces that were by turns pensive and jocund. In the end, the exercise produced two characters – a young, ambitious boxer and the foreboding ghost of his grandfather – and even the beginning of a scene.
Though our allotted time with Hampton ended after the character building exercise, all of the B.U. members asked to have additional time to continue writing their group play. Hampton challenged them to flesh out their stories independently by playing with dialogue.
I let the group write dialogue quietly on their own for 10 to 15 minutes. Afterwards, we had a great deal of fun reading the pieces aloud for group critique. After each person read, we went around and named an element from their piece that we liked, from a single phrase to the direction of the story. Everyone was extremely encouraging and proud of each others’ work.
Most exciting of all for the B.U. members, they submitted their dialogues for one-on-one feedback from Hampton. They were thrilled at having received commentary from him, so much so that they all wanted to read their critiques aloud. After each critique, we discussed ways that they could achieve his suggestions.
I loved seeing the B.U. members excited about reading and writing plays for the first time. Their eagerness to continue writing their collaborative play and their encouragement for one another was a genuine thrill to witness. And, of course, it was wonderful to see their pride at having accomplished something new and positive.
Since none of the B.U. group made a sufficient dent in reading Joe Turner, we did not rate it.