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Playing politics

Atlanta theater community unites for Naomi Wallace Festival


Even before Sept. 11, the Naomi Wallace Festival was no small affair. An event with few local precedents, the festival sees 12 Atlanta theater companies come together this fall for full productions and staged readings of plays, monologues and poems by a vital and risky writer, one whose work has only gradually begun to be appreciated in the United States.

Now, in an atmosphere charged with talk of war and racial suspicion, Wallace's work seems uncannily relevant. Lately there's been plenty of discussion about the therapeutic, redemptive powers of any heartfelt, intelligent art, and Wallace's plays certainly qualify.

The festival's origins began when Wallace met Theater Emory producing artistic director Vinnie Murphy at Louisville's Humana Festival and subsequently contributed her work-in-progress, Fugitive Cant, to Emory's "Brave New Works" festival of new plays last April. Murphy was so impressed with Wallace's work, he scheduled her play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek for Theater Emory this season and invited other theater companies to follow suit. He was pleasantly surprised when so many Atlanta playhouses wanted to join in.

Some aren't troupes that you'd expect, such as the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and Soul-stice Repertory, which specialize in classic playwrights. "I think most of us -- I was at least -- were hooked by the power of the writing. I felt right away that this would indeed be a pretty special event the more of us [that] participated," says Georgia Shakespeare Festival artistic director Richard Garner. "There is a scope in most of her works which echoes some specific classic writers I'm fond of -- I've seen glimpses of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, even a good dose of Chekhov here and there." The Shakespeare Festival presents a staged reading of the revised Fugitive Cant, now renamed The Inland Sea, Oct. 28.

As a persistently political playwright, Wallace zeroes in on some of the domestic and foreign policy issues that provide the subtext of our current war on terror. In the Heart of America, A Gulf War Drama, opening Oct. 19 at PushPush Theater, touches on the military actions in Panama, Grenada and the Persian Gulf. "The Retreating World," a monologue staged at Actor's Express Oct. 22-24, considers the Gulf War from the point of view of an Iraqi soldier.

"I hope that my play about the Gulf War will help people reassess what the war was about," Wallace says during a phone interview from her Kentucky residence. "After Sept. 11, I think a lot of people have been asking, were the terrorists just crazy fanatics from hell, or were they acting out of real anger -- and what was the source of that anger? People want to understand how to prevent things like this from happening again, so they need to ask questions. I think my work is out there to bring up questions, and I think the spirit of asking questions, to wonder why, has been discouraged since that event."

Wallace's theatrical inquiries into class and social justice aren't merely confined to the daily headlines: Her Obie Award-winning One Flea Spare, staged by Synchronicity Performance Group starting Oct. 26, depicts people from different social strata quarantined in a London manor during the plague of 1665. Some of her plays don't even necessarily take place in the real world, frequently having supernatural or symbolic points of view.

Nevertheless, her scripts pay a journalistic attention to real-world detail. The War Boys, read at Dad's Garage Sept. 26, depicted freelance vigilantes patrolling the Mexican-American border, while the short play "The Retreating World" argues that the Iraq embargo violates the Geneva Convention. "I do a lot of research. My plays may not be realistic, but the facts are correct," Wallace says. "Everything I wrote about the Gulf War in In the Heart of America is supported by research. If you're a left-wing writer, you have to write twice as well as another kind of writer, because you can't afford to have any falsities in your work."

Despite her accuracy -- or maybe because of it -- her plays have intimidated theaters in her home country. For most of the 1990s, Wallace's challenging plays found far more acceptance in England, where, for about nine months of every year, she lives in North Yorkshire with her partner and three daughters. "British theaters aren't as afraid of social issues and class conflict, partly because they're more funded by the government," she says. "They can put on what they want and take risks, without being as dependent on money and pleasing the audience."

Wallace, who grew up in both Kentucky and the Netherlands, acknowledges being born to radical politics. "I had a working-class mother from Amsterdam, and her family was always left-wing: During World War II, they sheltered Communists and Jews. My father was a journalist and came from a privileged background, but he'd admit that she educated him politically." Wallace's views aren't confined to her work, either. The day of our interview, she participated in a "Green Armband" demonstration for the Peace and Justice Movement in Louisville. And on Nov. 6 she helps organize "Playwrights Against the Embargo Against Iraq," a New York production of 10-minute pieces from British and American playwrights, including Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter and Robert O'Hare.

Wallace believes that all theater has political dimensions. "If you're writing about any kind of power relationships on stage, you are writing about politics, you're writing about class, you're writing about the distribution of property," she says. "You may think you're not being political if you write, say, a middle-class 'apartment play,' but you're actually supporting a political viewpoint without questioning it. I like Brecht's quote that art that declares itself unpolitical allies itself with the ruling class."

Wallace began her writing career as a poet and has published a collection of poetry in England. She felt drawn to the stage because "poetry's more of an elite genre than theater. There's always been 'resistance poetry,' but it often sees itself above social issues. Also, poetry's a solitary endeavor, and I wanted to work in a more collaborative art."

The Atlanta festival gives her no shortage of collaborators, with a dozen theaters participating (and Emory also screening the film Lawn Dogs, for which she wrote the screenplay).

"You can say what you want about the Atlanta theater community, but we aren't afraid to be just a part of a greater whole," says Richard Garner. "You add to that the wide variety of styles of work people do here in theater in Atlanta and it makes sense to approach one author, who has a remarkably varied body of work, from many different angles. And in doing so, we're creating something more exciting and thorough than any of us could accomplish alone."

The Naomi Wallace Festival may be the second-greatest sign of the playwright's acceptance in her native country. The greatest is Wallace being awarded the prestigious "Genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1999.

She reasons that the MacArthur grant keeps her from being easily dismissed. "'She's a MacArthur winner, so you can't say she's an idiot,' which some critics in New York came close to doing. I was called a Marxist dinosaur and a child abuser, because I write such lengthy roles for children. But so much for New York City," she says. "After Prospect, Ky., Atlanta's now my second favorite city." That might just be Wallace being diplomatic, of course, but diplomacy is part of politics, too.

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