Southeast Premiere Begins

USF is part of national roll-out of a new play about Florida’s Black Seminoles and Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears; now playing in Theatre 2.

Playwright Marcus Gardley and Director Fanni Green (center foreground) with the cast and crew of his play "the road weeps, the well runs dry."     
photo by Candace Kaw | CoTA

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 2, 2014) – The journey began two years ago when USF became the only university to be part of the Lark Play Development Center’s bold venture to launch a new play into national prominence. Audiences in Tampa Bay can now see that play, “the road weeps, the well runs dry” this month following performances at the Los Angeles Theatre Company, Pillsbury House in Minneapolis and Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska.

Performance dates begin this Thursday, April 3 and continue through Saturday, April 5, 8 pm; Sun, April 6 at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, April 9 through Saturday, April 12 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 12 and Sun, April 13 at 3 p.m. in Theatre 2.

Behind USF’s own Fanni Green’s masterful direction, playwright Marcus Gardley’s mythical, magical poetic words, the actors’ inspired interpretation of his characters, the colorful costumes from Marilyn Bertch’s workshop, the haunting set from G. B. Stephens’ crew, and a beautiful soundscape provided by musician and sound designer Matt Crowley looms a dramatic back story: the 19th Century journey of Florida’s Seminole Freedmen and Native Americans to Oklahoma along history’s tragic Trail of Tears. The play breathes life into this little known period in history through the cultural tensions and the personal conflicts that unfold in powerful scenes between the mythic characters.

Gardley is an African American playwright whose paternal grandmother was a Black Seminole who left him with childhood memories of stories and songs she shared with him and his family. He came to realize that most Americans are unaware that Black Seminoles were a part of the forced Seminole migration and that some Native American tribes were a part of the slave trade and decided to bring these facts to light.

Lark in turn saw an opportunity to involve community partners in much-needed conversations about national issues and concerns. Conversations are part of this production when select audiences will have the chance to take part in the “Festival of Stories!” before the play starts or take part in post-show discussions. A storyteller, musician or scholar will engage the audience 30 minutes prior to or after these performances accompanied by a panel discussion focused on the play’s themes.

“We’re advising everyone to check the website in order to plan which night, or nights, they would like to come,” said Amanda Clark, marketing coordinator for the USF School of Theatre & Dance.

Speakers include the Tampa community’s Seminole Tribe Respected Elder Bobby Henry and Seminole Tribe Storyteller and Cultural Coordinator Herbert Jim, African American Florida Storyteller Sybil Barnes and Sia Figiel, a Samoan poet sponsored by Taproot Community Cultural Center plus Community Partner Panel discussion participants USF Professors Cheryl Rodriguez (Anthropology), Gary Lemons (English), and.Kyaien O. Connor (Mental Health Law & Policy).

The play’s development in a sense parallels Clark’s time at the university.

“The first convening we had here at USF was about six weeks after I started my current job. I had no idea the scope of this project the first time I met all of the wonderful folks from the Lark who were involved, and now I feel like an intricate part on the map of the journey of this play, a word that comes up a lot,” she said.

Clark is now well-acquainted with the newest members of the production are the actors – both student and professional – except for one. Four of the students in the production are taking on multiple roles; Paul Pullenis in the roles of Wonderful, grandson of Half George, also Goodbird, son of Trowbridge and Half George as well as the young Trowbridge; and Randy Schutt is Number Two’s younger self as well as Potter’s Clay, U.S. Army Scout. USF alumnus Manny Franco plays the town sheriff Trowbridge and the spirit Red Kyote.

With single roles to play Erin Jacobs and Faith Jones are sharing the role of Sweet Tea, daughter of Number Two and Mary South; Nicholas McKain isin the role of Colorado, the town Casanova; Tiffany Schultz plays Mary South, wife of Number Two; Adam Seacord is the Creek chief and Naomy Ambroise plays M. Gene, granddaughter of Horse Power, and BerChaun Clark is Fat Rev., M. Gene’s husband.

Don L. Johnson is a professional actor taking on the role of Number Two who Gardley describes as “a Black god” and Uwezo Sudan, a professional storyteller in the Tampa Bay area, plays Horse Power, the town elder and medicine man.

Reprising the role of Half George from the Los Angeles production is professional actress Perri Gaffney, a witch and the wife of Trowbridge.

“We have a great cast and a remarkable play,” says Green. "The combined scenic, lighting, costume and sound design is gorgeous, the acting, stupendous."

Community partners include community arts organization Studio@620 and community listener-supported radio station WMNF and their Radio Theatre Project. Together they hosted two readings of Gardley’s works, “the road weeps” and “The Rocks Are Gonna Cry Out,” and they sponsored related events.

Above all, for Green, the opportunity for School of Theatre & Dance students to learn about play development had a pivotal role in taking on this project. It appealed to the university as well.

USF Theatre & Dance School Director Marc Powers unexpectedly found out that what he already understood about the project was not exactly a well-kept secret. At the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Theatre, Artistic Director of ArtsEmerson David Dower presented a talk on “New Play Development: Unlocking the Rich Potential in the Academy.”

Powers described his surprise as the presentation unfolded: “In his talk, he praised the Lark New Play Development Center, and in particular the ‘road weeps’ project, as an outstanding example of involving a university theatre program in the process of new play development. He said that the university partner was the linchpin in both the project and the grant, and that the university partner was a remarkable partner in the process.”

And the partnership is bearing fruit from Green’s perspective.

“We work to instill professionalism in our students,” said Green who in addition to being a director is an actress and playwright. “From the importance of learning one’s lines, to showing up for rehearsals on time, and employing their craft in collaboration with others. The students are getting the added benefit of learning history and culture. Most amazing of all is being able to interact with a great living playwright, an extraordinary dramaturge, and a stellar artistic team to introduce a new and important work to the stage and the community.

“I’m especially thrilled to see our community partners involved at each stage and trust that this whole experience will enrich the diverse communities we are bringing together. Research, diversity, community engagement and national recognition are all rolled into this project. It's been a joy-filled challenge. All we need now are audiences!"

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563