Suzanne Bennett, Jill Campbell, Marya Cohn,
Dana Leslie Goldstein, Michele Aldin Kushner and Andrea Lepcio
© NewShoe 2010. All Rights Reserved.
ANZIA YEZIERSKA—Dana Leslie Goldstein
DOROTHY WEST and ELEANOR ROOSEVELT— Michele Aldin Kushner
EUDORA WELTY—Marya Cohn
KARA LEE CORTHRON, RUTH MALECZECH, and CASSANDRA MEDLEY—Jill Campbell and Andrea Lepcio
Concept, Dramaturgy, Additional text
Suzanne Bennett; additional text Andrea Lepcio
All six writers contributed to continuity and final shape.
Development aided by members of NewShoe, in particular: Alex Aron, Allyn Chandler, Teresa K. Pond, Lauren Rosen and Barbara Rubin.
NewShoe Members: Alex Aron, Suzanne Bennett, Jill Campbell, Allyn Chandler, Marya Cohn, Cheryl Davis, Dana Leslie Goldstein, Andrea Lepcio, Michele Aldin Kushner, Kim Merrill, Teresa K. Pond, Carmen Rivera, Lauren Rosen, and Barbara Rubin.
MIXED RELIEF is designed as a springboard for discussion of WPA Arts Projects in the 1930s and the value of arts support and subsidy by the current administration. Community leaders and public figures – for example, a state congresswoman, mayor, newscaster or artist – in the cast might spark interest and discussion.
Kara Lee Corthron
An announcer, the Senators, Hallie Flanagan, President Johnson, Michelle Obama may be Voice-overs, Puppets, or live, possibly double cast.
CASTING NOTE: While all of the fiction writers--Welty, West and Yezierska--look back on their lives from the vantage of a life already lived, their memories center around the 1930s. Their spirit and attitudes are key factors. Age should not figure decisively in casting. Of the living theatre artists, Corthron speaks from the perspective of a playwright launching her career, Medley and Maleczech of long and distinguished work in the theatre. There are short biographies of Corthron, Medley, and Maleczech at: www.WomenArts.org/wpa/wpa_script.htm.
Alternates fluidly between the 1930s and the present.
Music, primarily from the 1930s, is suggested, where possible performed by orchestras led by women or sung by women. The Zora Neale Hurston selections are on Library of Congress, American Memory. Live music, if available, would work as well, or better.
(Directors should feel free to experiment with set pieces, props, and costumes, or stage in the neutral reading--stands and stools--style. Slides and visuals may be used as noted or as inspired.)
Actors are all on stage- historical and contemporary writers in separate clusters – they can break apart, intermingle during play. They may each have a tool of their trade whether notebook, camera, laptop, typewriter, manuscript, photos, etc. They move between working, listening and reacting.
At open: Bars of “Mama Don’t Want No Peas,” folk song collected and recorded by Zora Neale Hurston. Sound of a gavel to introduce Eleanor Roosevelt.
(Writers half listen to music: Dorothy absently keeps time; Anzia writes in a notebook; Eudora may read and edit pages or look at photographic proof sheet; contemporary artists talk quietly with each other until gavel brings silence.)
(Slides of Depression scenes during Eleanor’s speech.)
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: When my husband, Mr. Roosevelt, introduced federally supported funding for artists as part of his Works Progress Administration, the executive cabinet said, “Mr. President: A Writers’ Project? Nearly a third of our population is out of work. We have breadlines – miles long. We have poverty in our own capital. This is no time to support art – What on earth will these artists do?” (Beat) “They will write stories as told by the everyman; they will excavate history, catalogue wildlife, describe roads, meadows, factories. They will collect the songs from every walk of life. They will discover America. They are going to talk to the people living in the mud of Mississippi, the mountains of Colorado, the cities choked with smog. They will collect songs from every walk of life. They will discover America.”
A young writer came to visit us at the White House. I made him tell me stories of his travels – of how his work – as an artist – a writer – has been changed by the Writer’s Project. He said – “Thank you Mrs. Roosevelt. I didn’t know how I was to put food on the table. Look what you’ve given me. I said – thank you, Langston Hughes. Look what you’ve given the world. Look at what you – and your colleagues – give the world... (Out to audience) Thank you, Zora Neal Hurston. Saul Bellow. May Swenson. Ralph Ellison. Arthur Miller. And you. (Smiles, nods to historical writers on stage; sits.)
DOROTHY WEST: Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Interviewed people in Harlem. Federal Writers Project. 1935. (Remembers) I’m Dorothy West. I wrote short stories, novels (sighs), journalism. 1901-1998. (Shakes head in wonder at long life.)
EUDORA WELTY: Eudora Welty. Jackson, Mississippi – for almost all my 92 years. I was a Publicity Agent for the WPA in 1935 and I traveled eighty two counties in Mississippi listening to people’s stories, then I wrote my own. Imagine, before I died in 2001, a Pulitzer, two American Book Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
ANZIA YEZIERSKA: Anzia Yezierska. Born 1880...ish (Gesture indicating date is approximate.) In Plinsk, Poland. Or Plotsk, Russia – who knows, the border kept shifting. Died 1970. (Proudly) Author. Member of the Federal Writer’s Project, New York, 1935. Catalogued the trees in Central Park.
(Writes) Azalea. Hydrangea. Linden tree.
(Looks up; addresses audience and writers on stage) After I died, my daughter, Louise, she wrote a biography about me. In it, she calls Red Ribbon on a White Horse – my autobiography – a fiction. It's because I didn’t mention her. Louise doesn’t figure in the story. I didn’t fictionalize her. I just didn’t mention her. Or her father. Or my first husband. And I changed a few names. And I invented a few minor characters. To get my point across. My point. That's what an autobiography is for.
I was eight or ten when I came here, and I was the youngest of seven. The only one in my family who went to an American school. I was also the only one who looked at my father, hunched over his torah scroll, his head bobbing up and down, and – (looks away.)
In Plinsk, my father was revered. In the lower east side – in America – he was good for nothing. My brothers and sisters didn’t see it. So I was the only one who left. The only one who rose out of the tenements like a Cinderella of the Sweatshops – that’s what they called me – I’m not making that up – it was in the papers.
Rose up to fame, riches, a Hollywood screenwriting contract. My father said I was a deserter, a radical, a hussy. Because I wanted to write. On Hester Street they all said I had a dybbuk in me. But I didn’t abandon them completely.
(Back to her list) White Spruce. Empress Tree. False Camellia.
I had written a book, Hungry Hearts, about life in the tenements and Sam Goldwyn bought it, and brought me to Hollywood to make it into a movie. I lived at the Miramar Hotel. And I had, for the first time ever, a bathroom of my own. Tiled! Two faucets. One for hot and one for cold!
But it couldn't last. I said the wrong thing. I dressed the wrong way. I was an outcast. On both coasts. My first book had been made into a movie. I published stories and another novel and was offered a 3-movie deal from a major studio. A 3-movie deal for books I hadn’t even written yet. Why would anyone offer that? I didn’t want the strings. Maybe I didn’t want the success either. Maybe I liked being an immigrant. An outcast. So I went back to New York.
The stock crash of 1929 hit everyone: bankers, industrialists, ditch diggers, authors. Publishing houses failed. Magazines folded up. When the Bank of the United States closed, my savings were wiped out. I moved to cheaper and cheaper apartments, until I was finally living near where I grew up, in a room without even a sink, skipping meals and begging acquaintances for work. I had published three novels, but I couldn’t support myself. Poverty is a bag with a hole at the bottom. Finally, I hocked my typewriter.
(Back to list) Sourwood. Black locust. Siberian crabapple.
Then one morning I was sitting at a bare table with my landlady, who couldn’t pay the rent herself, drinking hot water with a tea bag in it that I’d been squeezing the last bits of flavor out of for days, when the radio broadcast a special news report about the WPA. It was 1935. There were already government projects to get fine artists and theater people back to work. Now there was going to be a Writers Project. A new world was being born. A world where artists were no longer outcasts, hangers-on of the rich, but backed by the government, encouraged to produce their best work. The president said so.
They gave the address for the Writers Project right there on the radio. I went. Immediately. $23.86 a week. That’s all I needed to get my typewriter out of the pawnshop.
At first, it was like a dream. For everyone. All these people called themselves writers. One had won a high school essay contest. Another had written a typewriter manual. But some – Richard Wright was one of them – were the next generation of literary masters getting a chance they’d never have without Roosevelt’s crazy experiment.
(Back to her list; low sound of gavel underneath.)
Sweet gum. Sugar Maple. Tree of Heaven.
(Gavel calls meeting to order.)
VOICE OVER: House Committee on Un-American Activities, Dec. 6, 1938, Martin Dies, Texas, Chair.
(During the following testimony, writers react with interest and apprehension.)
MARTIN DIES: (Speaks with a Texas drawl, holds a big black cigar in one hand) Will you please state what your position is, Mrs. Flanagan?
HALLIE FLANAGAN: I am national director of the Federal Theater Project under the Works Progress Administration.
DIES: How long have you held that position?
FLANAGAN: Since the inception of the Project, Congressman Dies, on August 29, 1935.
DIES: Now, will you just tell us briefly the duties of your position?
FLANAGAN: Yes, Congressman Dies. Since August 29, 1935, I have been concerned with combating un-American inactivity.
FLANAGAN: I refer to the inactivity of professional people who, at that time when I took office, were on the relief rolls, and it was my job to expend the appropriation laid aside by Congressional vote for the relief of the unemployed as it related to the field of the theater, and to set up projects wherever in any city twenty-five or more such professionals were found on the relief rolls.
DIES: (Smokes his cigar.)
YEZIERSKA: (Takes back stage) I got paid to work mostly at home, on my own creative projects, because I had a reputation. That was something! But then the project started getting criticized for inefficiency. They called it a boondoggle and said that we were taking honest taxpayers’ money for nothing. Nothing. Suddenly we got a new director. And there were no more individual creative projects. All writing would have a goal – a tangible, government-approved goal. The American Guides.
And there was something else: a mandatory daily word count. If you didn’t make the count, you were warned. And then if you still didn’t make the count, you were let go. Two thousand words each day.
I was assigned to catalog the trees in Central Park for the New York guide. There are over a hundred different types of tree in Central Park. It wasn’t a bad assignment. It wasn’t fascinating, but it wasn’t bad. I did what I was supposed to do. I noted every type of tree. And I logged every word.
(Back to her list) European Beech. Japanese Dogwood. Spanish Oak.
Now, looking back, there’s a kind of poetry in those guides, a poetry that wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t been written by us. In a time of great need. When we desperately wanted to be writing our own verse or our novels, but even more desperately, we wanted to eat. That’s what binds us all.
Not long after that, I started my autobiography. The one Louise calls a fiction. It’s no more or less a fiction than my entire life is, the immigrant who made good, the Cinderella of the Sweatshops, the dreamer who won and lost the American Dream, the radical, the hussy, the storyteller. By Louise’s standards, the only true thing I’ve written is that catalog of trees. And it didn’t even have my name on it. It was a paycheck. A life raft. A list.
(Straight out) Common Bald Cypress. Weeping Willow. American Elm.
(Sound of match striking; Dies relights his cigar.)
DIES: You think it is entirely proper that the Federal Theater produce plays for the purpose of bringing out some social idea that is a heated issue at a particular time?
FLANAGAN: It is one of the things the theater can do.
DIES: (Aha!) One of the important things. Now on this Stevedore, page 24: “Lonnie, God damn dem, anyhow. What dey think I am? Do I look like some kind of animal? Do I look like somebody who’d jump over a back fence and rape a woman?” I am not going to read all of the things in here, but there are numerous examples of absolutely vulgar statements and the frequent use of the Lord’s name in a profane way. Now, what I am asking you is this: Do you think it is proper that the taxpayers’ money of America should be used to produce a play to an American audience that contains such vulgarity and such profanity as that? (Waves cigar.)
YEZIERSKA: (Puts away her list) Dies and the House Un-American Activities Committee killed the Writer’s Project in 1939. (Refers to onstage writers) Writers today are facing their own maybe not great but at least Pretty Good Depression.
(The contemporary writers lean forward or stand – take stage.)
KARA LEE CORTHRON: Kara Lee Corthron. Playwright. And I’ve written for television. New York City.
CASSANDRA MEDLEY: Cassandra Medley. Playwright, teacher, born in Detroit. Lived in NYC all my adult life.
RUTH MALECZECH: Ruth Maleczech. Actor, writer, collaborator. A founder in 1970 of Mabou Mines, a theater company in New York where I still make work.
YEZIERSKA: (Addresses MALECZECH) How, there’s no more WPA, how do you put on your work and still pay your rent?
MALECZECH: Mabou Mines came out of the Seventies when there was a kind of community of artists here. It was really hopping. There was new music, new dance… the visual arts and the theater all sort of messed with one and other in very creative ways. When we first began in 1970 you could get… get a big loft on Broadway for $50 bucks a month. (Medley nods; Corthron is amazed.) Now, it is up for grabs. You have to have a roof over your head, you have to be able to pay your bills, and at minimal maybe an internet hookup, or maybe a telephone or something, and you have to eat something, that is the bottom line. Most of the people I know don’t do more than that; I do not do more than that.
YEZIERSKA: No tiled bathroom for you.
MEDLEY: My writing career was supported by many offices as a word processor. I had my own idiosyncrasy, I suppose. I would go to a different office every day for variety. If it was a terrible place, I knew I’d only be there one day. To keep the boredom down. I did that ‘til my first grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. I was able to stay home for two or three months... unanticipated circumstances… brought me into Sarah Lawrence College to teach there. Now I teach part-time, cobble it together somehow. In the 1990s, I took a leave from Sarah Lawrence and did two years as a writer on daytime television. Cost me my soul.
YEZIERSKA: Produce. Produce. Like Hollywood.
CORTHRON: Right now I’m on unemployment. I’ve done different things. For a long time I was a copy editor for a financial magazine. And last year I wrote for a television show, Kings. We did 13 episodes but didn’t get renewed for a second season. I’m actually on the top tier of unemployment and I actually live pretty cheaply. I’m not really a shopping person. I bought this shirt last October. I never buy clothes, but it was new and like $10. (She laughs.) If I buy clothes at all, it’s Goodwill. Because I don’t care that much about clothes. Most of my money is on food and necessities. I live with my boyfriend, we split rent. We live in a great neighborhood, a crappy apartment but rent is cheaper than a lot of people we know. I’m not that interested in having a lot of things.
YEZIERSKA: This is because you are young.
(One of the writers starts to help Dorothy; she waves her off. Music, “Tuxedo Junction,” The International Sweethearts of Rhythm)
DOROTHY WEST: I may always be remembered as the woman on Oprah. The woman whose book Oprah made into television. I am ninety years old. There was an entire life before Oprah. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m grateful. I’ve waited those ninety years. It was hard waiting. I had many people tell me – success was coming. I started young. I wrote my first story when I was seven. I was winning competitions at fourteen. But the first real triumph – the one talked about – was my story tying for second prize with Zora in Opportunity. That was my first taste. I was positive electrifying fame was around the corner. I was living in New York by then. We were nineteen. Helene and I. My first cousin, Helene Johnston. We were living in Zora’s apartment. Better by far than where we were staying – the YWCA – Zora pointed out. Before she went to Europe and left us two months unpaid rent. I loved Zora Neale Hurston. I really did. She traveled through rooms like the wind. She believed in me.
We friends supported one another. That’s why – when I created my own magazine – I had help from every one of them. It was 1934. I was twenty-seven years old, broke like everybody else. Do you know who gave me their work? Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes – just to name a few. Oh, Zora. And… let’s see… Matt’s work too, yes, of course. We edited Challenge together. That’s Marian Minus. Mattie Marian Minus. She and Richard met in Chicago. At the South Side Writer’s group. They looked at how the Negro writer fits into social movements, passionate politics. Matt and Richard were also in the Party. Matt was much more political than I. I appreciated communism. The Soviets opposed segregation. But it was her arena, really. Did it much better than I ever could. The fight was in her blood. I miss those days. They feel like flickers of candlelight. We were so poor – Goodness. You wouldn’t know I’d grown up with the most expensive education, the finest clothes in Boston. But I wouldn’t trade it. Not for all my years with Mattie. We had to move in with her mother for a bit. Yes, we were that broke. We wanted to make a living from writing, you see. Well, now. That’s difficult for anyone, isn’t it? So you can see how grateful I was when Mrs. Minus got me work with the Writer’s Project. Seems like the WPA was employing every body those days: Zora, Langston, Ralph, Richard. They were hard days. The Depression killed a lot of people. Quite literally. We writers were thankful that President Roosevelt didn’t forget us. (Beat.) I can’t remember a movement quite like that one. And it was a movement. I mean, at the time it was a job. But looking back – we were a wave sweeping across the United States, collecting bits and pieces of life. No one else has done that since.
V.O or SIGN/SLIDE PROJECTION: January 29th, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs bill establishing a National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
V.O. PRESIDENT JOHNSON: We in America have not always been kind to the artists and scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement.
What this bill does is bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours. The arts and humanities belong to the people, for it is, after all, the people who created them.
(Some applause for creation of NEA.)
WEST: By 1942 my landlord threatened to garnish my wages. And that was that. I moved here, to Martha’s Vineyard, to my mother’s. Mattie visited a lot. But eventually, life took her elsewhere. That was okay. My life took me here. I worked at the Gazette. In the billing department firstly and then wrote my column. I forgot about The Wedding after a time. That was my second novel. I started it in the seventies. Then let it go. Writing a novel is like lugging around an anvil. I did not finish The Wedding until 1995. By then I needed a former first lady of the United States to coddle me. Yes, indeed. Coddle. She came to visit every week. But it was more than that. She assured me I was relevant. The 1970’s convinced me I was not. When I was a child I desperately wanted to be a great Negro writer. What a Negro writer was had changed. “Negro” had changed. Wealth and whites and the aristocracy of the African American had changed. But my neighbor had been on the world stage. She’d seen it all. She said – I’ve read your work. You have a voice and vision. She was a lovely woman, Ms. Onassis. What a lovely woman. She believed in me.
The Wedding was the book Ms. Winfrey wanted. She got it. I have a feeling that happens often. She’s made it a TV mini-series. It’s no secret the lead character is based on my niece, Abigail, who married a white fellow which threw the family into a well of no-return. All during production Abby teased me: Hey Aunt Dottie. The mail’s late. Let’s call Oprah. Aunt Dottie. The sky’s not so blue today. Let’s call Oprah. Apparently, I telephoned Ms. Winfrey often. But it’s my story. My book, you see. Oprah took my calls. She had to. I had Ms. Winfrey’s production people send me dailies. And daily, I was on the phone with Oprah. This is why, I believe, she asked me such questions on television. I was in her hotseat. Me – who had been waiting for this moment of absolute fame the whole of my life. After ninety years. I was to give my entire biography in four minutes, thirty seconds. Miss West – she says – is it true your father was born a slave?” Now, why would anyone bring up a thing like that? I understand it intellectually. I’m old. But he was my father. Not a bookmark for history. I told Ms. Winfrey: Indeed, that’s true. My father, Issac West, was born in 1860 on a Virginia Plantation. He came to Boston as a young man to become one of the African American elite and he did so. And Oprah was happy. Then came the second question. Miss West. What is it like being the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance? Well, we didn’t know we were in a Renaissance. We were just having a good time. I was eighteen for goodness sakes. And broke. I had a feeling poor and go-lucky would not connote “Renaissance.” I told Ms. Winfrey: We wrote about what we believed in. That’s easier to do when one is young. One has the energy and the idea that anything is possible because anything is. And Oprah was happy. Then came the third question. Miss West. You had an interesting relationship with Langston Hughes, didn’t you? I wanted his baby, Oprah. I really did. I told him that if we had a child it would not impede his creative life in any manner. I really felt I needed a child then. I was so young. But there was a hole in me I felt only a child could fill. It was an unusual situation – all the time we spent together. There was a group of us. In 1932 we went to the Soviet Union to make a film about race relations in America. I fell in love with Langston the first evening on the boat. We found ourselves smelling the salt air. Staring at the stars. Many women, I was to find, felt the same way about Langston. He deserved it with all his looks and charm. My Forever-a-Boy. He had other affairs on that trip – as did I. Mildred Jones. Poor Mildred. She threatened suicide for me. That was a bit messy… Imagine my desire not to tell this to Oprah. Langston was a marvelous man,” I told her. I was twenty five when we met. He called me The Kid. I was the youngest of the group. I was the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance.” And Oprah was happy.
I’ve often been asked what it takes to be a writer. It takes people to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself. Oprah believed in me. My friends believed in me. Even the government believed in me. That says a lot.
YEZIERSKA: Miss West, don’t forget the ones who thought we were all Commies. Congressmen Dies, Starnes, Everett Dirksen? The House Un-American Activities Committee?
WEST: Oh, yes. Well, Mattie was the Commie in our house. (She starts to sit, is distracted by the voices.)
SLIDE OR V.O.: Senator Jesse Helms, North Carolina. Oct 24, 1990.
SENATOR HELMS: The NEA recently denied funds to a woman named Mrs. Hughes to perform in one of these obscene plays as a result of intense public scrutiny. But the NEA still gave her $15,500 playwriting fellowship based on the script that she wrote for the obscene play. Do you see the pattern?... The American people have it stuck to them again.
V.O.: Senator Gordon J. Humphrey from New Hampshire.
SENATOR HUMPHREY: We ought to terminate the National Endowment for the Arts because there will be no end to this argument and controversy over what is art and what is not... I would get rid of it. I say get rid of it. I say let us get serious. This is a time of crisis. We cannot afford the wasting of money on such frivolity and decadence. It is outrageous.
V.O: Senator from Washington. Mr. Slade Gorton.
SENATOR GORTON: Government shouldn’t fund art at all, art should be free.
WEST: We all have to find our own way. Whether or not the government is with us. Listen: (She gestures in a way that suggests she is calling up the future.)
V.O. MICHELLE OBAMA. The Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, September 2009.
OBAMA: Our artists challenge our assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to view our world in new and very unexpected ways… It's through this constant exchange – this process of taking and giving, this process of borrowing and creating – that we learn from each other and we inspire each other. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part.
WEST: (Smiles knowingly.)
MALECZECH: One big change in funding is most of the grants now that come from the NEA are based on product. Now it seems to have a lot more to do with whether you can ingratiate yourself to people – whether you can sell yourself. You are essentially… you’re a product.
YEZIERSKA: Cinderella of the Sweatshops.
MALECZECH: And of course the older you get, the less you feel like going up to someone and saying, ‘Well let me tell you the story of my life, my work, blah blah blah.’ I mean you’re still a beggar on the street for God’s sake, when you have been doing this for certainly long enough, for your whole life.
MEDLEY: You have to have a culture that feels the Arts are an essential part of the conversation and we don’t. We never have. But we as artists keep working, because we care about art. What are we talking about? Surviving. Every artist is asked, “Why you do it?” Because you love to do it. I think that is essential. That what you love to do is not determined by economic consideration. This is a culture that is war-like and ignorant. This culture values the dollar, not art or the artists.
YEZIERSKA: This is the richest country in the world. There is money for wars. Why not for life?
MALECZECH: I have a femur bone in my left leg that is sort of flaking, it is very hard for me to walk, which is not normal for me… Luckily, I got a foundation grant from The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, that Jasper Johns and Cage and subsequent artists have put together, and it was for twenty five thousand, which is a lot of money for me, a lot of money, and I spent it all on being sick, all of it, and I have Medicare and supplementary insurance but all of it on being sick. For six months it ate it up, because there are no reimbursements for cabs on out of pocket expense forms. The first bill I got from the hospital was for one hundred and forty one thousand dollars. I just laughed. I sat down and laughed for maybe five minutes and then called them up and said, ‘You better look at this again, because I do not have this kind of money, cut your losses.’
WEST: The struggle of New York. Silver streets and pancakes at 4 am do not come cheap.
(Music: Instrumental opening of “It’s Right Here,” Blanche Calloway)
EUDORA WELTY: In 1931, when I was twenty-one, I came back to Jackson Mississippi from New York City, where I’d spent a year at Columbia Business School studying advertising. I’d been at Columbia because my father, who was pretty wise, had told me “you’ll never make a living as a story writer” and the only thing I knew for sure is I didn’t want to be a schoolteacher. But after Columbia it was the depression. There was no more advertising. There were no jobs. That was also the year my father died. He was fifty-two. My mother was left with two sons in high school and college. And me. So I came home and worked in Jackson at whatever I could do. You know it was poor pickings in those days. But I again was lucky. I worked for the radio station here and in, oh various meager work on newspapers – whatever I could get. And at that time I didn’t know that I didn’t know anything about the ways of life in the world.
When the WPA came along in 1935, I was offered a job as a publicity agent junior grade for the State office. I did interviews and reporting, looking at and talking to the people on the various WPA projects. I took a bus, or sometimes a train, because I couldn’t take the family car for so long as a week. I went wherever they sent me, and I talked to people about their experiences on the projects. I visited the newly opened farm to market roads and the new airfields hacked out of old cow pastures. I interviewed a judge in some new juvenile court. I rode along on a Bookmobile route distributing books into open hands like the treasures they were – And at night, in some country town hotel room, under a loud electric fan, I’d write the projects up for the county weeklies to print if they found space.
And pretty soon I started taking my camera with me, taking snapshots of the people and places I saw. I didn’t have an end in view. I just took the pictures because I wanted to. And after a while I’d taken several hundred of them I guess. Most people I snapped without them really realizing it. Others I asked if they would mind going on with what they were doing while I took a picture. Then a few of them were portraits. I asked the subjects to pose for me, and they did, looking straight into the camera.
One day in Tishomingo County, I asked an old black woman – a share cropper – if I could take her picture, and she told me sure I could since she’d never had one taken before in her life. And she buttoned up her frayed sweater and placed her shapeless hat just so. She pulled herself up tall and looked at me with all the fearlessness I have never had.
WEST: Your description makes me think of the old woman, Phoenix Jackson in A Worn Path. I read that story in Atlantic Monthly. I remember because it won the O. Henry Short Story prize.
WELTY: 1941. That was the year I published A Curtain of Green, my very first book of short stories. I met so many women like Phoenix – trudging on no matter what is in their way, even when they can’t remember why. When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible, and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.
In my own case, a fuller awareness of what I needed to find out about people and their lives had to be sought through another way, through writing stories. But away off one day up in Tishomingo County, I knew this anyway: that my wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
My time as a publicity agent junior grade for the WPA was the real germ of my wanting to be a real writer, a true writer. I started writing stories while I was in the WPA. I didn’t use any of the actual people I’d met or places I’d been to. But they provided the raw material. It was the reality that I used as a background and could draw on in various ways, even though indirectly. The same year our office was disbanded, I had a story. I sent my first story out that very same year.
(Music: Opening bars of “This Year’s Crop of Kisses,” Alice Faye)
WEST: Kara, you said you were on unemployment. That can’t be easy. What would you do if there were a Federal Writers Project and they offered you a job, would you accept?
CORTHRON: If I were offered government money, would they hire me as a playwright, not tell me what that entailed? The NEA debacle, in that case there were no strings attached and then later there were. Is there always going to be that eye watching? I don’t want to be the mouthpiece of big government. I don’t want to be. I guess for me because I’m a product of my environment I distrust the government now. It’s hard to put myself in a place to believe they really would be supportive of creating art. It sounds almost utopian. But the utopian vision is a little frightening to me. I would be hard pressed to feel it doesn’t come with strings.
WELTY: The Federal Theater Project was a marvelous enterprise – bringing live theatre to so many people that had never even seen a play. If your President appointed a minister of culture and congress sanctioned subsidies for artists, Miss Medley, do you think that would be good for artists, for the country?
MEDLEY: Government is a big, big word and I would say that I would read the fine print, knowing our own situation, how it is continually shifting as the various administrations shift. So it would be one of those, open up the envelope with caution. Read the fine print.
WEST: I understand President Obama created an arts task force.
MEDLEY: What’s the task? We have to really look at what is, and what is, is that Congress did not pass a $50 million bill for children and yet they keep spending on war. So what are we talking about here?
MALECZECH: As far as federal funding, I would love it. Of course, I’m talking about NEA funding as it used to be, no strings. They need to reinstitute ground floor funding, ongoing institutional support that includes small and new companies… send on site visits, fund individual artists. That’s absolutely necessary, individual artists. The reason it is a national issue rather then an individual or state or city issue is, if the federal government helps this movement to grow again, it shows that this country, that is not given to artistic effort and certainly was not founded to do that – has its eyes open again and is unafraid. This will increase the curiosity level of the entire country.
V. O.: Wendy Wasserstein tells of being questioned by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.
WASSERSTEIN: I won a twelve-thousand-dollar NEA grant in 1984, which had aided me in completing The Heidi Chronicles. In my mind that’s a small investment for a play that ran on Broadway for two years, toured the country for two years, and kept many people employed and inner cities lively. The Speaker looked at me and said, “You know, Arthur Murray never needed a grant to write a play.” On the way out, after his aide whispered in his ear, the Speaker turned to me and said, “I’m terribly sorry, I meant Arthur Miller.” I replied, “Yes. And he did have a grant. It was called the WPA.”
(All the writers enjoy a laugh.)
YEZIERSKA: Cassandra, do playwrights make a living from playwriting?
MEDLEY: It’s possible. And it’s possible to go to the moon. I tell my students try to write the best play that you can and look for survival jobs. Network and join the little companies in a corner of a basement doing all kinds of things.
CORTHRON: I think why theater is a big, big question. I think it’s a spiritual question. I think it has much to do with how we look at ourselves.
MEDLEY: I write for the theater because my mind works that way. And I’m very excited to create characters who move around in three dimensional space in real time right in front of me embodied. That’s why I write for the theater. And I love the sensation of sitting there in an audience watching theater and love love the experience of moments on stage that are so moving one forgets one has written them.
MALECZECH: Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, was conceived partly as a response to Sept. 11. Five women wrote five poems, one for each borough. A tiny little company mounting a production on a barge in the East River. The attitude is, ‘We do not have any money, and the reverse is, but screw you, we are doing it anyway.’ Although a lot of people did end up helping us, funding us. Can you imagine? Not only producing the thing but getting agencies like the Coast Guard, and the Parks, and Police Departments on board. We surmounted death and bureaucracy, illness and poverty, logistical challenges and every foul-up imaginable, but we got it done, made it happen in the middle of the river in Queens.
V.O.: House Committee on Un-American Activities, Dec. 6, 1938
DIES: What time is it please?
MR. STARNES: A quarter past one.
DIES: We will adjourn for one hour.
FLANAGAN: Just a minute, gentlemen. Do I understand that this concludes my testimony?
DIES: We will see about it after lunch.
FLANAGAN: I would like to make a final statement, if I may, Congressman Dies.
DIES: We will see about it after lunch. (Puts out cigar; a gavel.)
(Few bars from “Oh You Nasty Man,” performed by Alice Faye)
ELEANOR ROOSVELT: They will discover America. That’s what Mr. Roosevelt said about our writers. “But why? Why do we need this? Why now, Mr. President?” was the reply from certain congressmen. What was meant was: “What if we don’t want to see America?” There is a man – I shan’t mention his name in good company – he heads HUAC. House Un-American Activities Committee. He believed Mr. Roosevelt’s Writers Project would only serve to reflect badly on our country. We have riots in Houston oil ports. Starvation in the dust bowl. The Writer’s Project would show this fractured society to the world. We claim, Mr. Roosevelt and myself, that variety is our greatest strength. And celebrating American diversity can prevent fascism. What is a nation, really, without expression? Without those who can hold a mirror. To its strength. To its weakness. This is who we are. This is our nation.
(A harmonica plays softly during historical summary)
YEZIERSKA: The Federal Writers Project employed nearly 7,000 writers at its peak in 1936, produced three and a half million copies of 800 titles. Best-known for its American Guides Series with detailed descriptions of towns and villages, photographs and artwork, it’s the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Americana ever published.
WEST: At its peak the Federal Theatre Project employed almost 13,000 people. In four years it produced 1,200 plays – including new, classic, children’s, musicals, a Living Newspaper taken straight from stories of the day – and reached an audience of 25 million people in forty states. 65% of the audience had never before seen a play with live actors.
WELTY: The National Endowment for the Arts created by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 has awarded 130,000 grants totaling four billion dollars. The Endowment’s budget for fiscal year 2010 is $167,500,000. The total federal budget is $3.55 trillion. Approximately half of that goes to the Department of Defense.
A tiny fraction of one percent goes to the arts.
ELEANOR: Let us support our gifted story tellers and their Guides to America: Anzia Yezierska and Dorothy West, in New York City, Eudora Welty, in Mississippi---
SLIDE or V.O.: Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, December 14, 2009.
CLINTON: I think that artists both individually and through their works
ROOSEVELT: Juanita Brooks in Utah
CLINTON: can illustrate better than any speech I can give or any government policy we can promulgate
YEZIERSKA : Margaret Lund, Nebraska
CLINTON: that the spirit that lives within each of us, the right to think and dream and expand our boundaries,
WEST: Tabiola Cabeza de Baca, New Mexico
CLINTON: is not confined, no matter how hard they try, by any regime anywhere in the world.
WELTY: Angie Debo, Okalahoma
CLINTON: There is no way that you can deprive people from feeling those stirrings inside their soul.
YEZIERSKA : Hilda Polacheck, New Jersey
CLINTON: And artists can give voice to that. They can give shape and movement to it.
WELTY: Agnes Wright Spring, Wyoming
CLINTON: And it is so important in places where people feel forgotten and marginalized and depressed and hopeless
WEST: Meridel LeSuer, Minnesota
WELTY: Margaret Walker, Chicago
CLINTON: to have that glimmer that there is a better future, that there is a better way that they just have to hold onto.
ROOSEVELT: Let us celebrate our past and present. It will shape our future.
YEZIERSKA : A paycheck. A life raft. A list.
(Music, Zora Neal Hurston, “Halimufack” to close; perhaps, Dorothy West, others, sing along.)