5 Questions with playwright Charlayne Woodard

Stuart: You have had phenomenal success (LA Drama Critics Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk nominee, and two NAACP Awards) writing and performing your solo plays, PRETTY FIRE, NEAT, and IN REAL LIFE but FLIGHT is your first multi-character play. What were some of the joys and challenges of this transition?  

charlayne-woodard-resize.jpgCharlayne:   FLIGHT was commissioned by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.  I was asked to adapt the Brer Rabbit tales.  I set about researching the tales, which led me to folktales and folklore  from Africa, the Caribbean, and the American South as well as slave narratives. This ‘Folklore Project’ afforded me the opportunity to direct the workshops and to explore new worlds.
My toughest challenge was to find five master storytellers to carry the evening.  I needed five actors with a visceral connection to the South and things southern.  They must use all the tools of the Griot – movement, music and the word.  Their vocal and physical life must be alive and kicking – able to go from place to place in a glance, changing from character to character on a dime. 

Stuart: Your solo work is very autobiographical and thusin-real-life.jpg contemporary. FLIGHT on the other hand is set in the pre-Civil War South. What sparked you to write this story that takes place over two hundred and fifty years ago?

Charlayne:  I needed a reason to tell the folktales. American slaves used folktales to inform, to teach, to empower, and to entertain themselves.  They’d have storytelling sessions at weddings, funerals, and wakes — to celebrate births and to heal and comfort themselves when things went wrong. Children were taught manners and all the dos and don’ts of living in that dangerous world full of contradictions through stories.
Slave narratives told me exactly what life was like on a plantation.  So I asked myself, “What makes this night different from all the rest?”  All I had to do was choose an event.  I chose the most devastating event that could happen on the plantation. A family was torn apart.  A mother was sold for reading to her five year old son.  The entire community was shaken.  A healing was needed and it is done through a night of storytelling. 

Stuart: Music and storytelling are essential elements of the play. Why do they feature so prominently in these characters’ lives?

Charlayne:   The characters in FLIGHT tell stories the way I do in my solo plays.  They use the tools of the Griot.

Stuart: In addition to your solo work you have also had a in-the-blood.jpglong and varied stage, tv, and film career ranging from your Obie Award winning performance in Suzan Lori-Parks’ IN THE BLOOD to the film version of Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE with Daniel Day-Lewis (I was absolutely shaken by your interpretation of Tituba, by the way). How does your experience as an actor inform your writing?

Charlayne:   I am an actor who tells stories.  I write on my feet, in the moment of being and doing.  I can barely call myself a playwright, really.  Writing for me is…sensorial.

Stuart: Your next solo work premiering this July at LaJolla Playhouse is atmospherically titled THE NIGHT WATCHER. Who is the Night Watcher and what is s/he watching?

Charlayne:  I can’t tell you much about THE NIGHT WATCHER just now because I’m still creating it.  Nothing is definitive at this point.  She’s still in the incubator.  My first workshop was this past summer at the Ojai Playwright’s Conference.  I worked with Keith Bunin.  The next workshop is at the Lajolla Playhouse – From the page to the stage.  I will be working with Shirley Fishman and Robert Egan.

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