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Editorial

Racially Charged Drama Opens at SF Playhouse

by Jean Schiffman

Julie Hébert’s “Tree” explores the emotional fallout of family secrets.

The four complex characters in Julie Hébert’s lyrical and deeply emotional drama, “Tree,” form a fractured family severed jaggedly across the racial divide. Directed by Jon Tracy, the play opens this month at San Francisco Playhouse.

African-American matriarch Mrs. Price (played by Cathleen Riddley) was once an elementary school principal but now has dementia. Connected only by a thread to present-day reality in her Chicago home, she remembers the Mississippi delta of her youth, where she loved a white man, Ray, a marine who went off to war. Her two caregivers are her son, Leo (Carl Lumbly), a chef, who is described in the stage directions as having “lost his way in life a bit,” and Leo’s bright-eyed, college-student daughter, JJ (Tristan Cunningham). When Didi (Susi Damilano), a white woman from Baton Rouge, knocks on their door, a Pandora’s box of family secrets opens. At first disingenuously claiming to be a reporter for the “Times-Picayune” researching an article about black families who moved to Chicago from the South, Didi eventually admits she’s a gender studies professor and in fact Leo’s half-sister. Awkward and wary new relationships follow, as do, inevitably, new understandings of self-identity.

“I always wanted to write about race, and this idea of how close people can be in the South, and in particular where I grew up [south Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico], without undermining any of the terribleness of the racial problems,” says Hébert on the phone from Los Angeles, where she lives. Her theater career began in San Francisco; the first play she directed was Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s “Cowboy Mouth” at the Eureka Theatre back in the day. Since then she has directed new plays for theaters all over the country, including Steppenwolf and the Magic Theatre. The first play she wrote, “True Beauties,” was developed in Southern California’s Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and mentored by Maria Irene Fornes; it premiered at the Magic. Since then, Hébert has received many grants and awards, written and directed for TV and film and written and directed plays. “Tree,” which premiered at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in L.A., won several awards, including a Pen Award for Drama. It has also been staged at Victory Gardens in Chicago and Horizon Theatre Company in Atlanta.

For a white writer to create black characters can feel risky. Hébert admits to some fear at the beginning of the process. “But very quickly the characters started coming through strongly,” she says. When she decided that Leo would be a 40-year-old black man (she’d originally imagined a woman), the character evolved, “so clear and immediate,” she says, “that whatever intellectual fear I had about my right to write this character was subverted. Later I felt that Leo was my grandfather. The fact that Leo is African-American affects who he is, but he’s [also] a man I know very well and love.

“The deepest impulse in writing this,” she continues, “was for a white person and a black person to have a real conversation and get into it, to put them both into a situation with truth-telling, nobody pulling their punches.”

“You wanted to find out if we were crackheads and criminals before you claimed us, professor,” asserts a defensive and cynical Leo to Didi. Later, trying to find out exactly what she wants from him, he says, “[You’re] more than likely feeling some guilt about your racist ancestors.” And later still, when Didi tells him her father died nine days earlier and produces a batch of love letters between her father and Leo’s mother: “And now there’s nobody to turn to in your grief, so you throw yourself into cleaning out his house and you discover… letters.

A half-brother. A black woman your daddy wronged, so now you have a mission.”

For Hébert, writing is a way to understand her own life. She once told an interviewer, “Our white family lived down the block from several black families and there were many friendships and intimacies that transcended the boundaries between black and white.” She adds now, “There’s still some part of me that wants to express the intimacy of living close together.” Her grandparents were sharecroppers, poor people who spoke English with heavy French accents and whose neighbors in the Cajun delta were black people who spoke Creole French. “There’s a connection in terms of being oppressed. …but Cajun white people still had white privilege,” she acknowledges.

Following another impulse, Hébert wanted to investigate the experience of learning about a parent too late, which happens to both Didi and Leo in the play. Hébert herself read through hundreds of letters that her father, a marine, wrote to her mother when he was stationed in Korea during the war there. “There was such a powerful sense of his dreams and personality and vitality,” she muses. “In some ways I recognized my father but in other ways he was a young guy I just didn’t know. It caused some internal shifts inside my psyche.” (Both her parents died recently.) Leo and Didi, within the fraught context of their racial differences, each experience that internal shift in profoundly unsettling ways.

In her plays, Hébert tends to look for ways of expressing the internal language of the mind: “We present to the world a coherent personality but inside there are these voices.” In Mrs. Price, she sees a character whose personality is fractured into its component parts—the collection of experiences that comprise what we think of as the “self”—and who is revealing those parts without inhibition.

For director Tracy, race relations is a major element in the stories he wants to tell onstage (a busy local director and sometime playwright, he last helmed “Breakfast with Mugabe” at Aurora Theatre Company). “There’s a social pressure to explore our similarities, but we should also glorify our differences,” he says.

He sees “Tree” as a focused lens through which to observe family dynamics under pressure. “What Didi and Leo want is hidden from us and from each other and maybe from themselves,” he observes, noting that these two protagonists—antagonists to each other—deal with that conundrum by, among other odd behaviors, disrupting the other’s safety zone. He also points to the ways that the various characters are shaped by their past, and by their parents’ past; Mrs. Price, as she moves fluidly between a life-changing romance in her young adulthood and the confusion and banality of the present, is emblematic of that sense of being in thrall to memory.

Adds Tracy, “This is a cadence play, a celebration of poetry, of the oral tradition, of culture. It’s a cadence that connects the South to Chicago, black to white.” Within those apparent differences he and the actors are looking for connections among the people and the places.

In casting local actress Cathleen Riddley in the key role of Mrs. Price, Tracy believes she will bring pieces of herself to the role that will “revolutionize the character.” On the phone from Iowa, where she was attending her father’s funeral, Riddley responds, “I hope I do!” Her father had Alzheimer’s, and at times, like Mrs. Price, he would be combative—“not the father I knew,” says Riddley.

Before rehearsals have even started, she is memorizing lines, knowing that to follow Mrs. Price’s stream of consciousness means following a nonlinear path without the usual markers that help actors move from one train of thought to another. Some of the outlandish things Mrs. Price says need to come from internal, not external, stimuli. (Her first spoken line, after singing a traditional Cajun song, is “I think I’m dead. I believe I done died.” “You don’t sound dead,” remarks Leo dryly.)

Riddley is also immersing herself in research, listening to music, reading, looking at pictures and watching movies about Hurricane Katrina. The culture in that delta region, which Mrs. Price still inhabits in her mind, is very spiritual and very resilient, she observes.

When she was writing the play, says Hébert, whenever she got stuck—whenever she couldn’t figure out what happens next—she’d try to go deeper into the characters, uncover another layer of truth, be as honest as possible about what they’d do in the circumstances. “Plays end, but life doesn’t,” she says. “Your story, messy and complicated as it is, just keeps going.”

January 20 → March 7

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St., 415/677-9596

sfplayhouse.org