Ginger Rutland, a veteran writer and journalist who grew up in Sacramento, has a new play adapted from a memoir written by her late mother Eva.
The script is a loving portrait of Rutland’s parents, a middle-class black couple who lived through turbulent times. The play recounts the couple becoming homeowners and raising four children, sometimes coming up against discriminatory real estate practices and racial discrimination along the way, but also living long, largely happy lives.
CapRadio Theatre Critic Jeff Hudson sat down with Rutland to discuss how she decided to write the play, how it was different than her other work, and what it was like to see someone play her mother on stage. You can read Hudson’s review of the play here.
When did you first get the idea of adapting your mother’s memoir into a play?
Ginger Rutland: I got to Ashland a lot, where they do the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They do a lot of modern plays, and they do a lot of black plays. And I was up there, and they were doing these plays, and all the black plays were so grim. There was one about rape in Africa, it gave me nightmares.
And I’d been going around the country with my mother and my daughter, promoting (my mother’s) book. I said to the people in Ashland, “Hey you guys, you know, I’ve been black all my life… It ain’t that grim, really. I’ve had a really happy life. You ought to do a happier story about black people. You should take my mother’s book and turn it into a play. And they said “You do it.” And so I said “Okay,” and I came home, and started writing.
You’re an experienced writer, you’ve done broadcast journalism and print journalism. What’s it like, writing a play?
It is different. In writing, they always tell you, don’t just tell. Show. In play writing, you literally have to show by having people act on the stage. So you can’t just describe scenes or tell what people are thinking. You really do have to somehow convey that through the dialog, the movement on the stage, the sets. It’s a different kind of writing, and it was a challenge. Want to do a shout-out to Luther Hanson (a theater department faculty member) at Sacramento City College, who really did help me shape it, and explained to me the basics of playwriting. And then I had a great director in Stephen Eich, who helped me formulate what finally got on the stage.
What’s it like, having the play seen by people who knew your mother and heard her speak in public settings?
You know, it’s both gratifying and a little disconcerting. People say “Your mother wasn’t really quite like that.” Even though my mother was blind, she never wore the dark glasses or used a white cane. She just refused to do that. And my brother and my sisters always said “Mom never used a cane. How come you have her in a cane?” Well, I wanted to demonstrate, right off the bat, that the character is blind. So you use these props to do that. But my mother never actually wore dark glasses, nor did she use a cane.
Do you have further plans for the play?
What I really want is for this to go to Ashland. I love Ashland. They told me they wanted me to do it. I did it. Now I want to get it there. Whether I’ll be successful in that, I do not know. But I guess the question for me is that this is very local. This is very Sacramento. The things that happened, happened in this town. And I am curious, does it have legs? Could it be in Chicago, or Los Angeles, or New York, or Ashland.
And I think it can be, frankly. I think what happened to my family was not all that unusual. I don’t think you often see upper middle class blacks portrayed in theater. Usually they are poor and they are angry, and bad things have happened to them, and they’re suffering, and so forth. And I think there’s a huge swath of black America just like my family. They were sort of middle class, they sent their kids to school, they tried to get along. All of that. And that’s what my mother, when she wrote her book, was trying to say. It’s not bad. Being black in this country is kind of joyful. Yes, there were problems. Yes, there was discrimination. Yes, some bad things happened. But for the most part, she had a joyful life, as did I. And I think she was trying to tell that part of black life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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