Archive for the tag 'Robert Hemenway'

Living in the Shadow of Affirmative Action

January 24th, 2016

Perhaps because I am not Caucasian. some friends and colleagues have been asking for my opinion on the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  To one such query, I replied cryptically, “People should stop whining, and just get on with it.”   Not surprisingly, my politically incorrect response was met with uncomfortable silence.  Truth of the matter is, I have kept quiet about my own encounters with affirmative action for thirty years.  I have managed to “get on with it,” but I think perhaps the time has now come for me to tell my story.

Up till the mid-1980s, I was content to be a “lecturer” in the English department at the University of Kansas, because the half-time appointment gave me a lot of time to pursue my own writing.  However, being on half-time also meant that mine was not a tenure-track position, that there were only a limited number of courses I was allowed to teach, mostly classes in Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric,  with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward.  This went on for a number of years, and then an opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s.  There was suddenly an opening for a creative writing position in the department.

Although I was known at that time primarily as a playwright, having written nine plays, one of which had been presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and two of which had been produced Off-Broadway in New York, I had also already published a collection of my earlier, prize-winning short fiction.  Out of curiosity, I asked the chair of the department if I should apply for the creative writing position, because I could teach playwriting as well as fiction.  “Why not?”  he smiled amiably.  “You have all the right qualifications.  Besides, it would make Affirmative Action happy.”  Although I was startled by his remark, I tried not to dwell on it.  So I applied for the position, submitting all the necessary documents required—samples of my work, reviews from the press, student evaluations, letters of recommendations from peers and colleagues, etc.

Weeks went by. I heard that there were a lot of applications from all over the country, but that the committee in charge had narrowed down the list of candidates to six, who were all going to be interviewed at the MLA convention in December.  My name was not on the list, but I was told that I was still being considered.  “Should I go to the MLA convention in Chicago?” I asked.  “No need,” a member of the committee reassured me.  “We know all about you and your accomplishments, so there is no need for us to interview you.”

At the start of the spring semester in January, the department was told that two of the applicants who had been interviewed in Chicago were being invited for campus visits for further scrutiny and evaluation.  No more was said about my application, so I simply assumed, quite correctly, that I was no longer being considered.  The two candidates who were brought in were Carolyn Doty and Tom Lorenz, both of whom were novelists.  When their campus visits were over, the department was overjoyed to learn that the administrators in Strong Hall had been so impressed by both Carolyn and Tom, they had decided the department could hire both of them, even though only one position had been advertised.

Another couple of years went by.  After I turned 44 and had given up all hope of ever teaching anything beyond Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward, K.U. had a new chancellor, Robert Hemenway, who was very concerned about the lack of diversity among the faculty.  He sent out word that anyone of color who was already on the periphery at the university, should be brought into the fold quickly, bypassing the usual national search.  The same English department chair who had encouraged me to make Affirmative Action happy, now took it upon himself to champion my cause with the new chancellor.  Thus, in 1989, I stopped being a “lecturer,” and became a legitimate tenure-track professor at K.U.  Another lecturer with whom I had been friendly, a lesbian from Australia who was also a novelist, confronted me at a party shortly afterwards and said drunkenly, “I may be the right gender, but my skin is the wrong color, and my eyes are the wrong shape.”  I don’t know how many others in the department shared her opinion.

So that’s how I was hired, in my mind not because I was good or because I had invaluable experience to offer my potential students in creative writing, but because I was a person of color whose presence on the faculty would prove that the University of Kansas was a colorful oasis.  Feeling very much like a second-class citizen, I was determined to prove my worth by working harder than anyone in the department.  In 1989, when all this happened, I convinced my good friend Grant Goodman to fund not only the first Asian-American Festival at the University of Kansas, bringing in an astonishing array of Asian-American artists and scholars for a week-long celebration the likes of which has never been rivaled at the university, but also the creation of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) to produce the plays yet to be written by my future playwriting students.  Sometime in the early 1990s, Carolyn Doty took me aside and said, “Stop doing so much.  You make the rest of us look bad.”  In the intervening years, even though I have won every single teaching award the University of Kansas has to offer, it never seems enough, because the feeling of being a second-class citizen has never gone away.

When I finally decided to retire in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy in the English department as to whether another playwriting teacher should be hired to replace me.  By then, Carolyn Doty had died, and Tom Lorenz argued very persuasively that there were more students interested in fiction writing than in playwriting, so it was more important to hire someone in fiction.  The new chair of the department was caught in a dilemma, and she asked me if I knew of any young playwrights of color who could be hired the same way I was hired back in 1989, bypassing a national search, so the department could have its cake and eat it too.  A former student told me about Darren Canady, a young African-American playwright originally from Topeka who had moved to New York but who still had strong ties to Kansas. I put forth his name, and he was hired after a whirlwind campus visit and interview.  Darren has not kept in touch with me since he was hired five years ago, so I have no idea how he feels about the way he was hired.

But, back to the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  I have yet to see Chi-Raq or Concussion, so I have no opinion about whether or not these movies or anyone involved with their creation should have been nominated for any Academy Awards.  Having lived all these years in the shadow of Affirmative Action, forgive me for thinking that the brouhaha is brouhohum.

4 December 2015: Sweet Smell of Success!

December 4th, 2015

Somewhat optimistically, we set up 50 seats for the December 3rd staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris at the Lawrence Public Library.  To my astonishment, as the crowds poured in, we had to add another ten chairs to accommodate everyone.  I was thrilled, not for myself, but for the actors, whose wonderful work after only three short rehearsals truly deserved to be seen by as many people as possible.  Herewith, my personal note of thanks to each and every one of them:

Benjamin Good (Young Frank) is new to me.  I ran into Margaret Kramar, his mother, at the local farmer’s market a couple of months ago.  I had worked with Margaret before. When I asked if she would like to participate in the upcoming staged reading of my play, she not only said yes, but also introduced me to her son, saying he had done some acting as well.  After speaking to him briefly, I cast him on the spot.

Will Averill (Middle Frank) was one of my earliest playwriting students in the English Department at K.U.  He wrote a delightfully nightmarish play called The Sea, which English Alternative Theatre (EAT) produced in the early 1990s.  The play called for a grotesque 9-foot tall articulated female puppet, so we constructed one, and brought her with us to a fancy cocktail party Chancellor Robert Hemenway was giving at his residence on campus.  Since then, Will has also appeared as an actor in innumerable EAT shows, including his star turn as a nerdy young Hugh Hefner who accidentally hits on the idea of publishing a girlie magazine called Playboy.  Our production of Bunnies by Michael O’Brien was subsequently invited for performances at the national festival of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C.

Dean Bevan (Old Frank) is another one new to me.  I don’t know why we haven’t had the opportunity to work together before, but I am so glad he was available for this reading.  He commands attention on stage with his powerful voice and presence, and his line readings are absolutely spot-on.  He kept asking me for notes after each of our three rehearsals, but I really had no notes for him.  I hope to work with him again, and again.

Jeanne Averill (Nita Harris, Helen “Nellie” O’Hara) was in the original 1980 production of the play at the Lawrence Community Theatre when it was still in the old Carnegie Library building.  Back then, Jeanne played Frank’s timid illegitimate daughter Frances Congden.  For this production, she has graduated into the part of Frank’s shrewish second wife.  I first saw Jeanne in an experimental production of a play called Telemachus Clay sometime in the mid-1970s.  I remember very little about the play itself, except for one line Jeanne uttered:  “I’m not crying.  It’s the rain on my face.”  It was heart breaking and, to this day, I still hear echoes in my mind of how she uttered that line.

Kitty Steffens (Laura, Young Kate Stephens, Yolande) is someone whose work I had been impressed by, in various Card Table Theatre productions. I first worked with her earlier this year in the staged reading of Collected Stories, the prize-winning play by Donald Margulies, also at the Lawrence Public Library.  There is something luminescent and magical about Kitty on stage, and I am so happy we got to work together again on this one.

Cynthia Evans (Anne Harris, Mrs. Lorna Mayhew, Mr. Scully, Princess Alice) is another one who goes all the way back to early 1990s with EAT, sometimes as a scenic designer, more frequently as an actress.  Among her most memorable performances are Ruth, the enigmatic siren in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming; and the cranky old ax-wielding backwoods woman in Topple the World, an original script by Ken Willard.

John Younger (Thomas Harris, George Bernard Shaw) is a god-send, someone who can do no wrong in whatever role he undertakes on stage.  For me, he has been Creon in Antigone, and also the Older Tom Wingfield in my production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, in which I decided to split Tom into a younger and an older self, in much the same way I split Frank Harris into three different selves in Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  Besides being a Classics professor, John is also an archeologist who has been digging at sites in Crete for many years.  He plans to retire soon, to move to Crete to be among his beloved ruins. which will leave a big hole in the local theatre scene.

James Carothers (Mr. Kendrick, Oscar Wilde) is a distinguished professor in the English Department at KU, who has also distinguished himself as an actor in various EAT productions through the years, appearing in almost all our Labor Day staged readings, most memorably with colleagues James Hartman and the late Bernard “Bud” Hirsch in our presentation of Art by Yasmina Reza in the auditorium of Spencer Art Museum.

Shawn Trimble (Byron Caldwell Smith, Reporter, Masked Man), like Will Averill, was one of my earliest playwriting students.  He was a Religious Studies major when I first knew him, and he wrote a deeply philosophical Nietzschean play called The Abyss, which EAT produced.  Since then, Shawn has appeared as an actor, not just with EAT, but also with EMU and Lawrence Community Theatre in all its incarnations.

Stephen Moles (William Harris, Rev. Verschoyle, Priest, Policeman, Reporter, Servant) is another one of my playwriting students.  After graduating from K.U., he left for New York and attended Columbia University, where he discovered his true passion for creative non-fiction.  I’m delighted he hasn’t abandoned theatre altogether.

Margaret Kramar (Mrs. Emily Clayton, Old Kate Stephens, Baroness) is a lecturer in the English Department at K.U.  In 2010, when we lost an actor in EAT’s production of What Really Happened, an original script by Benjamin Smith, she gamely stepped in and learned the part just days before we opened.  She was a joy to work with then, and she’s a joy to work with now.

Amy Devitt (Frances Congden, May Congden, Erika Lorenz) is another distinguished professor in the English Department at K.U.  Like Jim Carothers, she has participated in a long list of staged readings for EAT, and was Amanda Wingfield in our full production of The Glass Menagerie.  I’ve always thought she would make a terrific Mary Tyrone in Eugene Oneill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I retired before we could do that one.  Maybe I can talk Card Table Theatre into mounting a full production of this one with her in it.

Karl Ramberg (Mr. Sumner, Prince of Wales, Judge) was in the very first EAT production back in 1990, a double-bill of Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now and Terence McNally’s Andre’s Mother.  Karl reprised the part he played in a staged reading of the same double-bill when I retired in 2010.  In between, Karl has appeared in at least half a dozen other EAT productions, most notably as a homeless man in Upright, an original script by James Hilburn.  He also frequently composed original music which he performed live for many of our productions—cello music for Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, and piano music for Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now, as well as Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

I’ve been blest, to have been served by such fine actors.  I am so glad there was an enthusiastic audience to see their marvelous work in our staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris on December 3rd at the Lawrence Public Library.  Thank God for family and relatives, for Facebook friends, and for social media.  In the waning days of fading print, it is social media that’s helping us to get the word out to potential audiences for theatre.

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