THE ENSEMBLE THEATRE
Written by Don Wilson Glenn
Dedicated in Memory of Mary Lou Davis
January 30 - February 28, 2010
Shirley Whitmore, Detria Ward, Rachel Hemphill Dickson, Tisha Dorn and Lee Waddell. In Celebration of Black History Month AMERICAN MENU is showing at the Ensemble Theatre through February 28th, 2010. Photo by David Bray Photography.
Time: May 1968
Place: Kitchen in a Texas Diner
Setting: It is noonday, rush hour for the diner
Martha…………………….Rachel Hemphill Dickson
Johnnie May…………………………….Detria Ward
Na ………………………….Shirley Marks Whitmore
AMERICAN MENU Presented by the Ensemble Theatre
Interview with Artistic Director Eileen J. Morris
By Theresa Pisula
January 4th, 2010
Houston, Texas USA
Eileen J. Morris is a director, actress and educator. She worked closely with the founder of The Ensemble Theatre, George W. Hawkins, from 1982 until his death in 1990. She has served on several boards and panels during her 30 years as an artist and has held the offices of president, immediate past president, vice-president and secretary with the national organization, Black Theatre Network from 1994 – 2004. She has also served on the board for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance and Xpressions Dance Company. She has served on numerous panels such as the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, Harris County and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Today, not only is she the Artistic Director for the Ensemble Theatre but contractually, she is also the Director of three shows every season. This year, one of the plays she directed is AMERICAN MENU by Texas playwright Don Wilson Glenn. AMERICAN MENU is now showing at the Ensemble Theatre from January 30 – February 28, 2010. To fully appreciate her view point of the play and how much it has influenced her, here are her notes as the Director of AMERICAN MENU as published on the Ensemble Theatre’s Playbill on January, 2010:
Artistic Director of The Ensemble Theatre EILEEN J. MORRIS
I was first introduced to Don Wilson Glenn’s play, AMERICAN MENU at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina. I feel a connection to these women that speaks volumes about identity. It was there in that southern town bursting with the energy of people, art, dialogue and creativity that I knew that this story must be told, as often and wherever it could. This play reaffirmed my belief in women, women whose day-day struggles, activity, search for what was right and wrong in life, need to love and be loved in return, compassion, their nurturing behavior that is as simple and common as peanut butter and jelly, and most importantly, hope.
These women, like so many others before them, stand on the shoulders of ancestors that come from each of our families – those that are grandmothers whose aromas of bread baking, chicken frying and clothes being washed in bleach, mothers who made chicken noodle soup when you’re sick, cuddled and held you when you’re sad, stayed up all night to help you complete the science project, and gave us love, just good old fashioned L-O-V-E, 24 hours a day. Women who paved the way for us in civil rights – Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Imelda Benson, Vernell A. Lillie, Audrey Lawson and other unsung sheroes.
AMERICAN MENU tells the story of five women in the same community sharing stories, experiences, food, racism, and love. Women, whose passion for life is often saddled with tragic human frailties and flaws. Women, whose issues deal with loss and death, love and betrayal, friendship and family. The stories of these women must be told so that they may stand and be strong, engaging and beneficial and make a testimony to the power of the whole.
Theresa: What is it about AMERICAN MENU that you have chosen it for the 2010 season?
Eileen: I directed this play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When I first saw it I knew that I wanted this play to be presented as much as possible. Because even though the playwright is a man, he definitely speaks a woman’s voice inside of his being. That is one of the reasons why I felt that this play was important for the Ensemble Theatre to have as a part of this 2009 – 2010 because it really spoke to women. It addresses issues that are important as far as Civil Rights, Abortion, women’s issues, and family, domestic workers.
It really spoke to all those things that kind of make up this eclectic element of who we are, not only as people, but as women. It also dealt with the South, since we are here in the South in Houston, Texas. Even though this play takes place supposedly in Livingston, Texas or someplace going toward the North of Texas. I thought it was important that we be able to tell this story.
Theresa: Where did you see this play for the first time?
Eileen: I was first introduced to it at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina. As a matter of fact, it was directed by my mentor from college Ajene Washington from Northern Illinois University. I was like, “Wow this is really nice.” But every time I see it, I think I saw it one other time, it’s always a male perspective. I thought it was going to be important that this play have a female perspective in viewing some of the issues in tying some of these things together.
Theresa: How did you come to know the playwright Don Wilson Glenn?
Eileen: We really only had conversations over the phone. Because once I saw the play in Winston Salem, I wanted to be able to do the play. I wanted to be a part of the journey of this play, so we started talking. I talked to him once or twice when I was getting ready to do the play in Pittsburgh. And then that was it, we just made contact so that I would have permission to do the play with this other theatre in Pittsburgh.
When I moved to Houston, as soon as I got back, he sent an e-mail saying that he wanted to be able to work with the Ensemble Theatre. And I’m going, “Don Wilson Glenn? Oh, that’s Don Wilson Glenn of American Menu!” And I just got so excited so he came all the way to the theatre. We talked, I showed him around the theatre and we just had a conversation. And it was like we had known each other forever.
Theresa: (Laughs) A play does that to you. It makes that connection between people like you’ve known each other all your life.
Eileen: It lets people connect in such a really warm, wonderful way (smiles). So that’s how I first met him. I have to tell you, the relationship has been absolutely wonderful. He’s been a blessing to this theatre, having his work done, coming from a small community, bringing people to see the world. And we’re getting ready to do a stage reading at the end of the month. It’s great for theatre to be able to develop relationships with playwrights. That’s what we do, we do plays. It’s wonderful to have that kind of interaction and journey.
It's May 1968, just after the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and a month before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Five Black kitchen workers in a segregated lunch counter are forced to engage in painful self examination brought about by the senseless death of a young boy. Through passionate conversations, these women face the realities of life on the cusp of change. Jammed in a hot, airless room they must battle prejudice, poverty, ignorance and each other as they search for inspiration.
Shirley Whitmore, Detria Ward and Rachel Hemphill Dickson. In Celebration of Black History Month AMERICAN MENU is showing at the Ensemble Theatre through February 28th, 2010. Photo by David Bray Photography.
When I first read about AMERICAN MENU in the Ensemble Theatre’s 2010 season line-up, I got so excited just from reading about the premise of the story. I thought to myself, “Ooooh, wouldn’t it be fun to be a fly in the wall of some small kitchen in 1968 Black America?” I mean, who wouldn’t? I was really curious to see what these women had to say. I hungered to hear what their thoughts were, the gossip, their opinions and the passions of their own little worlds. And it’s funny that I use the word “hunger” because these women will feed you with a lot of food (for thought), literally and nutritionally. My expectations were more than fulfilled. And when my hunger was satisfied, when I was filled to the brim, they gave me more and so much more.
I mean, these women didn’t hold back. They say it like it is. Sometimes, my friends would consider me a lose cannon, because of the way I talk too much. Well, if I’m a lose cannon these 5 women of AMERICAN MENU are all Hydrogen Bombs. Martha, Mary, Buella, Johnnie May and Na, they were just dropping explosions everywhere. And I would categorize these bombs as atomic, not quite so much in the vulgar language but more so in humor, sarcastic wit and eloquent expressions of their pain and anger.
My favorite is Johnnie Mae, whose stories about how she buried her father served as a justification for his life existence. And then there’s Mary who has to deal with the police and the FBI because of the decapitated body of a young black boy found in her property. Young and pretty and ambitious, I did not like Buella at all. Not because she’s younger, prettier and has the most promising life ahead of her but because of the way she just walks around with her nose up in the air. I mean, I have nothing against Buella, after all she’s going to college and pursuing a better future for herself. I wish her the best but I just don’t care much for her character.
And then there’s Na (pronounced Ney) who reminded me so much of my grandmother. She didn’t hesitate to drop H-bombs when appropriate and her quips were fast and funny. But she was the eldest lady and her job was to keep everyone in line and keep the peace. She was more cautionary when confronted with whatever situation because as you know, life can be pretty unpredictable. She will always stay on the safe side and she made sure that everyone is as well by ensuring that everyone is busy working their jobs. Like I said, she’s just like my grandmother. And last but not least, there is Martha who is faced with the dilemma of abortion. She is simply disgusted with all the injustices around her (life will always throw you a curve ball) that she couldn’t fathom bringing another human being into this world. Really, I couldn’t help but just cheer for these women. They attract DRAMA to their lives like bees to honey.
These women are something else. Even though, I kind of know what to expect, I was still taken aback and shocked by some of the things that were said. The women’s expertise was in feeding the public with the best home-cooked meals. Comfort foods such as corn bread, fried chicken, baked potatoes and collard greens were amply served with pride. And even though the AMERICAN MENU play was presented in the cold February winter in Houston, the Ensemble Theatre went out of their way to make you feel warm and welcomed. They wanted to give you the most authentic experience possible. One member of the audience said, “I’m usually cold but I kind of feel warm this evening.” And I answered her, “that’s because of the fried chicken they’re cooking in the kitchen,” as I pointed to the stage. As Ms. Eileen Morris explained to me, they have a lot of food onstage. She wasn’t kidding - you can actually see and feel the heat from the smoke billowing from the pot of stew cooking onstage as the production team re-created the kitchen in a Texas diner in the sweltering heat of May 1968. The theater was filled with the aroma of chicken soup, fresh bread and various tasty smelling ingredients and hot spices. The food was meaty, filling and delicious just like the five female characters of AMERICAN MENU.
Shirley Whitmore, Lee Waddell and Tisha Dorn. In Celebration of Black History Month AMERICAN MENU is showing at the Ensemble Theatre through February 28th, 2010. Photo by David Bray Photography.
Theresa: What is the experience like, to be able to direct AMERICAN MENU?
Eileen: It’s absolutely wonderful. First of all, I have a very talented group of ladies. Some of them are veterans; one of them is new to our stage. So having them all come together, these wonderful diverse group of women who have their own strong personalities, who bring something different to each one of their characters. And yet these characters come together and work as an ensemble. I think that’s great.
Of course, I have the best production team ever in this particular show because of James V. Thomas who did the set. He’s our resident set designer and Adrian Washington who is our resident sound designer / operator. And Kris Phelps, our lighting designer, I really love a woman’s touch with the lights, because it’s almost like she’s looking down on us with those lights and giving us little kisses and hugs to warm us up, to make us look good. And I think that’s great, you know?
Theresa: (Laughs) Wow, that’s wonderful.
Eileen: And then Roenia Thompson who is the hair / make-up designer and then James West who designed the video that you’ll see at the beginning and at the end of the show. I thought it was important that people, especially younger audiences who don’t know a lot about the civil rights movement, we wanted to give them images that they will be able to identify with. At least something visual that will introduce them to the plight. And then Jacqueline Wright, our costumer designer who made all the uniforms that the girls are wearing.
Theresa: Was it difficult casting the characters for this play?
Eileen: No, casting the play wasn’t that difficult. We cast in June of last year. I was able to keep all the cast but one. One of the cast members got pregnant and we toyed back and forth with her staying in the play. But she would have been big, visibly pregnant. And she wasn’t playing the role that should have been pregnant. You’ll see that there is one of the roles in the play that is pregnant. So, then I thought, we’ll re-cast. And it worked out because she was having some difficulty with her pregnancy so she would have had to drop out anyway. And it’s always all in divine order.
Oh, there was only one role that was really difficult for me to cast. That was the role of Na because we have several mature actresses that are capable of doing that role. But I just thought that Shirley Whitmore, and you’ll see, she is primo. It was like that role is made for her.
What was difficult and challenging for us was the language, the text. There are so many one-liners in the play and there’s such a rhythm, a lyrical kind of ping pong game that happens (as Eileen snaps her fingers), that takes time. You’ll see, to make it work as an ensemble and to make it believable and honest and coming from a “for real” place. One of the things that I did, you’ll see when you see the play, after we came back from New Years holiday is I had the girls take dance classes. Because, you’ll see, the play is all about coordinating with each other. There’s a dance that they do, the choreography of actors being on stage and making places, hearing all the bell orders, you’ll see that it’s very chorographical. I felt that it was a big dance lesson. So I said, “Well, let’s take these dances,” and we did so that they would understand about movement and standing on their feet for four hours because that’s what they’re doing and coordinating themselves in their roles. And we did that. The other field trip that we did is we actually went to Livingston (Texas) where the play was originated. And we went to the diner where Don Wilson Glenn’s mom worked. So we had a wonderful research time. That was just great. I love that kind of stuff. That just enhances what we do. It gives us a feeling of approval.
The CAST at the Original Whistle Stop Cafe: Henry Edwards, Detria Marie Ward, Eileen J. Morris, Nicklette Izuegbu, Teresa White, Lee Waddell, Don Wilson Glenn, Michelle Harper, Cheryl L. Kaplan, Rachel Hemphill Dickson, Shirley Marks Whitmore and Tisha Dorn. Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre Playbill.
Theresa: That sounds like so much fun. How does this play relate to today, in the year 2010 now that we have an African American US President in President Barack Obama? Do you think these 5 women would have imagined something like an African American US President happening in the foreseeable future?
Eileen: I think out of the five women, maybe two of them might have said, “Yes, that can happen to us.” Because the struggle continues and we are strong, we are smart and something good does come out of all the hard work. So I think at least two of the women would have felt, that yes, this could happen.
But unfortunately, sometimes in the world, these kinds of issues still come up. We are still dealing with prejudices and with people not understanding that the world is diverse. And that we come in a mixture of different hues and experiences and genders and backgrounds of upbringings that really create different energies and diversity. Sometimes, I don’t think people understand. The world doesn’t always understand that that’s the beauty of living and in being. That God created those things for us to be able to accept. And to take different viewpoints and we should look at it as such. Not to say that, how you were raised and how you feel is your business. But as you become an adult and you learn different things, and you read different things and the world changes, we must learn to adjust and adapt ourselves. And I don’t think that always happens, unfortunately.
Theresa: As the Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre, have you already made the choices for the upcoming 2010 – 2011 Season?
Eileen: We’re so close, Theresa. We are so close. I can say this, that there will be an August Wilson show in the mix (laughs).
Theresa: Of course (laughs). That’s all you can say, though?
Eileen: That’s all I can say right now. Because I’m having my upcoming meeting in the next couple of weeks so we’ll be making decisions and announcing the season sometime in March. But it definitely promises to be a spectacular season.
Theresa: I can’t wait, I am so excited.
Eileen: Well, we have so much fun. I mean, I love that part because there are so many good plays to do, so much out there that people should hear about. And there are plays that address men and women’s issues. You know issues about the family, African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians; plays that address so many different issues and that’s the beauty of it all. Some people would see this and they’ll go, “Oh that’s only for those women because they were black and working in the kitchen.” Well, a man last night in our dialogue said, “You know what? It was interesting for me to get a sneak peak of what happens backstage (in the kitchen) because I was one of those people on the other side. I stopped in a little town somewhere in the South. I came in and ordered a Coke. The black woman handed him the Coke. And the guy on the counter told me that I can’t sell this to you because a black hand touched it.”
Theresa: (whispers) Oh my gosh….
Eileen: So we’re like, “What?” He actually had this experience. This man actually shared that last night in the dialogue exchange after watching the show. Now, we understand that this was in the ‘60s and the ‘70s…..
Theresa: It’s hard to believe that actually happened. You can actually open up a dialogue now in 2010 of what used to happen in our culture and our society because you presented a play as powerful as AMERICAN MENU to your audience. I applaud the responsibility you took as an artist that you chose AMERICAN MENU this year because we simply cannot forget what happened in the past.
Eileen: Because this man never really talked about what had happened to him. So this play gave him a vehicle to be able to talk about it and share the experience. He expressed his opinions after seeing AMERICAN MENU: This is how it made me feel. I’m glad to see another side of this. It opened up the possibilities for me to re-visit that and understand that everybody doesn’t always get it.
Theresa: What would you like the audience to gain from watching this play?
Eileen: To know that change happens within each and every one of us and that there is always hope in every thing that we do. So we look for the most positive aspect of anything, any journey that we take. It’s a journey for them to come to this place. When they leave here, they begin another journey. Tomorrow starts up another one and there’s always hope for a better tomorrow. And take with you an understanding and an open mind to be able to say, “You know what? I’m going to do things a little differently because that’s how I feel and why shouldn’t I?”
Theresa: Great! Thank you so much! Thank you for letting me have the opportunity to come here and do this. It is truly an honor.
Don Wilson Glenn, Playwright of AMERICAN MENU
A LOVING TRIBUTE TO MARY LOU DAVIS
Interview with Playwright Don Wilson Glenn for the Play
AMERICAN MENU Presented by the Ensemble Theatre
By Theresa Pisula
January 4th, 2010
Houston, Texas USA
Ensemble Theatre dedicates this production of AMERICAN MENU in the memory of Don Wilson Glenn’s mother
MARY LOU DAVIS (1938 – 2010). She inspired this play.
ENSEMBLE THEATRE DRAMATURGE CHERYL L. KAPLAN INTERVIEW WITH
AMERICAN MENU PLAYWRIGHT DON WILSON GLENN
Theresa: How difficult is it to write for five female characters living in 1968 after the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King?
Don Wilson Glenn: Well, I had first hand knowledge because I grew up with my mother and my aunts. And every Christmas and every Thanksgiving they get in the kitchen and they talk about the same thing. They talked about Martin Luther King and a whole lot of different things. And they just on and on and repeated everything they talked about so it became a living memory in my head. So, it wasn’t that difficult and it was a pleasure to do because I found that this is my story. All I had to do was put it down.
Theresa: (Laughs) I read in the interview that your mother MARY LOU DAVIS was the inspiration for AMERICAN MENU. And that all five characters represent the five different stages in your mother’s life. What was your mom like?
Don Wilson Glenn: She was a very courageous woman at that time period. She had gone through a bad divorce in California. She came back, she was depressed and then she said, “I’m gonna get off my butt and I’m gonna do something…” So this was the only job (in a kitchen diner) she could get in a small town. And so she worked in that job and she saved up her money.
Theresa: What kind of jobs did she do?
Don Wilson Glenn: As a waitress. She started in the back washing dishes, and then she became a waitress. And then saved up her money and went into Respiratory Therapy, got an Associates Degree and her certification and worked for 28 years in the medical field. My mother, she’s here right now. But she just recently passed away on January 9th, 2010.
Theresa: Back in 1968, I was 3 years old. How old were you at the time?
Don Wilson Glenn: I was 3 years old (laughs).
Theresa: How many siblings?
Don Wilson Glenn: My brother and my sister.
Theresa: And she took all 3 of you here from California?
Don Wilson Glenn: All 3 of us from California and she raised us with my grandmother. My brother has passed on. He’s been dead for almost 20 years now. My sister is still with me. And my grandmother is 106 years old (laughs).
LULANG KING - Grandmother of AMERICAN MENU Playwright Don Wilson Glenn, Celebrating her 105th Birthday. Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre Playbill.
Theresa: What would you like to say to the Houston-Theatre going audience?
Don Wilson Glenn: I think they would enjoy it because it’s a part of the American experience happening onstage. And those who are in their 40s and over, it would be like hitting them right back in the face all over again because integration fully did not come to this small town of Livingston until 1975. They will relate to it because the landmarks they’ll hear that they’ll know about. And I think it’s homage to those who survived it. And those who went out to fight for equality and the reason today in 2010 we have CHANGE. And that those people are still here with us, still fighting.
Theresa: What do you think, these five women in your play, what would they say now about President Barack Obama as the first African-American United States President?
Don Wilson Glenn: (Laughs) I think they would be ELATED! Because my mother, before she had gotten ill, for over 30 years, she was in the neighborhood signing up people to vote.
Don Wilson Glenn: She was a member of Voter’s Registration for almost 30 years in the African-American community. So when Obama won the election, it was the first year she was not at the polls because she was too sick. Well, she was home and she hugged her mother, my grandmother and she was jumping up and down! And she said, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe God allowed me to live and be alive to see this.” So I know they’re elated. I know they will be.
AMERICAN MENU Playwright Don Wilson Glenn in the entrance of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Livingston, Texas. Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre Playbill.