Marcus Gardley’s new play every tongue must confess opens the 2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival tomorrow, Friday July 25th. A native of West Oakland, Marcus is best known to Bay Area audiences for his acclaimed play Love Is A Dream House In Lorin, a love song to the neighborhood of South Berkeley. In all of his work he explores the African American experience through the lens of myth and spirit, and many of his plays have premiered in theaters from Yale Rep to the Empty Space. Similar to the Lorin Project, every tongue must confess focuses on a community in need of healing, only instead of an East Bay neighborhood, we’re transported to the small town of Boligee, Alabama, where someone is burning churches.
Alabama has twice been struck by arsonists in the past decade, and in a PF interview, we asked Marcus to comment on what why he chose to write about it:
PF: You’ve had a long history with PF – starting back when you were in grad school. How does this year’s festival compare to other work you’ve done with us?
MG: This year, this work or ‘work in progress’ is entirely different because I think I have a clearer insight as to what kind of writer I am and what kind of art I am passionate about making. Before, it was as much about learning as it was about writing something that moved people. At this point in my career, I am much more interested in creating work that raises questions and in this case the question is: why would someone burn a church? And what impact does a burned church have on a community in transition. I’m not sure that my play expertly raises these questions yet…but I definitely want it to.
PF: What was your inspiration for every tongue must confess, what was the spark that got you writing this particular play?
MG: I grew up in the church (my father is a preacher) so I suppose I became fascinated and obsessed with the recent rash of church burnings that swept Alabama in 2006. I have always thought of the church as a sanctuary, meaning it is both a sacred and safe place. So to burn a church, especially one in the Black Bible Belt: a poor, rural, predominately Black community seemed to boggle my mind. What do the arsonists have to gain? I had a thousands hypotheses and I thought the only way to rest my mind is to put them and the church community in a play – and play with them. Again, I wasn’t looking for answers as much as I was looking to raise a few questions. The answers should come from the audience.
PF: You originally conceived of every tongue must confess as a kind of detective mystery. How has the play changed over the past few weeks?
MG: The first draft is a detective mystery because that is the world of my research. There are twice as many articles and books on what kind of person burns churches than there are on the communities that are devastated by the arsons, and even less research on how these two groups are linked. Ironically, I don’t think the play is as powerful if the story details what happens after the fire, than if it explores what leads up to it.
One cares more about a community when one sees it thriving than seeing it burned. I also discovered that one of the teenagers in Alabama who was convicted of burning several churches had also been a member of an arson relief organization. In fact, he had assisted in the rebuilding of one of the churches he burned. With this knowledge and the desire to show the daily life of the church community, I decided to rewrite the play and put the arsonists in the same town.
PF: Many of your plays have myth and sacred stories as the underlying structure. How does that play out in every tongue?
MG: I think this play is its own sacred story. It is the history of a town drenched in as much fact as it is fiction. The world of the play has its own rules, its own folklore, and the residents seem to readily accept, celebrate and feed off of it. To this end, it invites the audience to be a resident for two hours, to wonder about the magic, to relish in the realism, to invest in the dreams and fears of the characters and to hopefully leave with a deeper understanding of how we all are inextricably linked. The powerful, unexplainable beauty about the sacred story is that it doesn’t overwhelm you with facts but rather it highlights human truths so vital to our existence that it beckons the presence of God.
PF: What’s coming up next for you after the Festival?
MG: Next, I will be starting my first series of workshops for the Richmond Project. Earlier this year, I interviewed a group of “Rosies” who built ships at the Richmond shipyards during World War II. And now, in this second phase, I will workshop the first act. The piece will be directed by Aaron Davidman who is directing every tongue must confess for the festival and it will showcase vocal soundscapes composed Molly Holm who worked with myself and Aaron on the Lorin Project.