By Roy Hoffman, Spalding MFA Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Faculty
Whenever I visit New York City one of my pleasures is attending theater. In the brisk days of late February this year, I had the delight of scurrying out of the cold into two venues where works by friends took away the chill and replaced it with dramatic heat unfolding in front of me.
From Lesléa Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” near Times Square, to Gabriel Jason Dean’s “Terminus,” in the East Village, I watched as my friends’ work intrigued, delighted, and moved audiences with a breadth of emotions. If not enough that I teach with Lesléa and Gabriel in Spalding’s Low Residency MFA in Writing Program, a third Spalding cohort, Charlie Schulman, had a play in rehearsal, too, scheduled for later in March, “Goldstein: A New Musical About Family.”
In the vast metropolis with its cornucopia of cultural offerings, it was rare, I realized, to know three writers with stories making the big time. I wanted to experience them all.
First I went to Lesléa’s show. The Acorn Theatre is on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row, just off 9th Avenue. As my wife and I took our seats I read over the program – “A Letter to Havey Milk: The Musical,” based on the short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman – and the lights went down.
While I knew much of Lesléa’s prose, from her YA books to her poetry, I had not read the Harvey Milk story. No matter. The show’s creators, with music by Laura I. Kramer and lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and Cheryl Stern, realized Lesléa’s narrative for stage with passion and eloquence.
The story revolved around a retired San Francisco butcher, Harry, who had gotten to know Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was assassinated in 1978. Through a writing course that Harry stumbled into – refusing to believe he had any literary talent – he found his way to composing a poignant letter to Milk. Along the way there were scenes recreating moments from Milk’s life, a horrific memory from World War II, even comic riffs in a Jewish deli.
It was a stage work both hilarious at times and deeply sad. And there was a rousing musical number with all the cast that made many of us tear up. By the time the performance ended it was a powerful statement about social justice.
Nancy and I got to our feet along with the entire audience to give Lesléas “A Letter to Harvey Milk” a standing ovation.
Next I attended Gabriel’s “Terminus,” at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, on E. 4th Street at 2nd Ave. The work’s setting was a long way from Lesléa’s 1980s San Francisco. Written by Gabriel, and directed by Lucie Tiberghien, “Terminus” took us to a tumbledown house in 1990s small-town Georgia.
I knew something of “Terminus” from hearing Gabriel share portions of it at Spalding, including a conversation about the play over bourbon at Louisville’s Garage Bar.
An aging woman whose memory plays tricks on her, Eller sat at home reckoning with ghosts of the past. Old yearnings, romances, and tragedies replayed themselves right before her – and secrets pushed forward. The South’s complex and abiding themes of race and religion were never far from the surface.
The production itself had a visceral quality, so that Gabriel’s characters, of different ages and races, were fully alive in their dreams and torment. I was reminded, as a prose writer oriented to the page, how exciting theater can be. In “Terminus” sound and light conjured an approaching train. A memory of gospel music became real as actors circled and sang – with Gabriel’s wife, Jessie Dean, one of the actresses.
Seeing it all dramatized only a few feet from where I sat on the first row was exhilarating.
In the play’s final, dramatic moment, the lights went out – then on again for the curtain call. Again, we all stood. Wild applause.
Heading back onto the wintry streets I wished that Charlie Schulman’s musical about an immigrant Jewish family were selling tickets for a night close on so I could see that too before flying home. The show’s composer and lyricist, Michael Roberts, had visited Spalding as a guest lecturer, and I knew some of the songs from a presentation Charlie and Michael had given. I recalled the melody of one of the songs, “Beloved,” and hummed it.
I was delighted to find out that posters were already going up at bus stops with a picture of the cast, and the announcement: “Goldstein: A New Musical About Family.” I’d have to make it back to New York City soon.
This trip, in particular, I felt inspired.
Roy Hoffman, a novelist and journalist, is on the fiction and creative nonfiction faculty of the Spalding Low Residency MFA in Writing Program. On the web: http://www.royhoffmanwriter.com