Campus & Community

Mother of documentary theater brings her “children” to Loeb Drama Center:

6 min read

Playwright, director Emily Mann ’74 has her say at Radcliffe lecture

The late South African playwright Barney Simon dubbed Mann’s work ‘theater of testimony’ because she constructs her plays from the words of real people, who, as Mann puts it, ‘are telling us what they know, often having no other way to bear witness and be heard.’ (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

Thirty years ago, when Emily Mann ’74 was an undergraduate directing plays at the Loeb Drama Center, someone told her that as a woman, she couldn’t possibly have a career as a playwright and theater director. Had she considered children’s theater?

Mann never heeded the words of her anonymous adviser. Instead of making theater for children, she became the mother of documentary theater, collecting accolades and awards – Tonys, Obies, and Drama Desks – along the way.

Mann, best known for the Broadway play “Having Our Say,” returned to the Loeb Drama Center Monday (Dec. 9) to speak as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

In her talk, co-sponsored by the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), this “mother” introduced some of her own fascinating “children.” The audience met a Vietnam veteran haunted by memories of his own brutality, a drag queen dressed as a nun, a Ku Klux Klansman, the centenarian Delaney sisters – all characters from her plays and all real people.

“Every one of my plays is basically a conversation between someone I’ve met and the audience,” said Mann, who has been artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., for 12 years.

The late South African playwright Barney Simon dubbed her work “theater of testimony” because she constructs her plays from the words of real people, who, as Mann puts it, “are telling us what they know, often having no other way to bear witness and be heard.”

Mann shared her artistic process with the rapt audience, detailing her interviews and encounters with the voices she put on stage. From hours and hours of interviews, she distills – but never changes – her characters’ words into theater, a process she likened to a sculptor’s.

“I’m trying to find in that big mass of material the form that wants to come out,” she said.

Even more compelling than the inner workings of Mann’s craft, however, were the characters and dramas that resulted. Although she doesn’t claim “actress” on her resume, Mann nonetheless held the audience spellbound as she inhabited an array of personalities, from an aging but feisty Jewish woman who survived the horrors of World War II in Europe to the Klansman she described as “the devil.”

Speaking from the set of the A.R.T.’s current production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” Mann credited a research grant from Radcliffe with launching her career. While in college, Mann grew curious about the oral histories of Nazi concentration camp survivors that her father, a historian, was collecting. Her father encouraged her to find her own stories to tell, and with her Radcliffe roommate she planned a trip to Europe to meet family members who had survived Nazi persecution of the Jews.

The grant provided money for plane tickets – and a conversation with her roommate’s aunt in London sparked the creation of Mann’s first play, “Anulla: An Autobiography.”

In the pitch-perfect accent and affect of an aging Eastern European Jew, Mann brought Anulla to life. Anulla tells the story of her husband’s concentration camp experiences while she makes chicken soup and boasts about her play, called “The Matriarchs,” which she’s “boiled down to just over six hours” but alas, has dropped and scrambled its unnumbered pages.

“I have found the solution for everything in my play,” says Anulla. “If the women with their hearts could start thinking, we could change everything within a year. But the women are not taking action and that is the trouble.”

An audience member at “Anulla,” which made its debut at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, led Mann to her next subject, a troubled Vietnam veteran whose heart-breaking story of guilt and brutality was at the center of her play “Still Life.”

“Execution of Justice,” which marked Mann’s Broadway debut as a playwright and director, took the trial of Dan White as its subject.

White was the San Francisco former policeman acquitted – through the now-infamous “Twinkie Defense” – of murdering Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk.

“For me, it seemed as if the murders were an unhealed wound in the city,” she said. She read from two characters who symbolized San Francisco’s divide: a policeman who admitted he wore a “Free Dan White” T-shirt under his uniform, and Sister Boom-Boom, a gay man dressed in a provocative and irreverent nun’s habit.

Mann described her simultaneously written plays “Greensboro (A Requiem)” and “Having Our Say” as “two sides of the same coin.” The former took Mann back to the courtroom, this time to revisit the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. Overshadowed in the news by the Iran hostage crisis, which occurred one day later, the event left five people dead after members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers attacked a group of demonstrators protesting the Klan.

With the chilling accuracy she brought to the Vietnam veteran in “Still Life,” Mann read the words of Eddie Dawson, an FBI informant and Klan member who helped ensure the police did not show up at the massacre.

“When I was with Dawson, I felt that I was in the room with the devil,” she said, then continued to recount – in his persona – the inner workings and inside politics of Klan meetings.

“Having Our Say,” the story of the centurylong lives of sisters Bessie and Sadie Delaney, restores power and hope to the African-American experience. The play toured internationally and became a television movie.

“I never let prejudice stop me from doing what I want to do in this life, child,” says Sadie as she describes the trickery that landed her a teaching promotion. “Life is short,” she adds. “It’s up to you to make it sweet.”

As audience questions probed her interviewing and writing techniques, Mann spoke about her subjects and their stories with reverence.

“You can’t make up people like this,” she said. “People like to talk about themselves. If you’re a good listener and you know when to keep your mouth shut, they spill.”