From Rudy Gray
As a young boy growing up in Harlem, I often heard the word “lynched” in conversation but never knew what it meant. Then one day I was shown a photo of a lynching. I had seen death in my neighborhood — people falling off a roof, children being run over, fatal stabbings. Nothing though, prepared me for the horror of what I looked at in that photo.
Then my eyes fell on the men posing to have their picture taken, proud, as if they had just caught a mammoth swordfish.
Years later I saw a photo of Walter White. I wondered what was this white man doing on the cover of Ebony Magazine? I knew he had to be important. I did not know what the NAACP was or what he had to do with
When I read his autobiography, A Man Called White, I came across a chapter, charmingly titled “I Decline ToBe Lynched”. In it, White describes how, after one interview with a klansman, he was strolling along railroad tracks toward the train station when a black man appeared out of nowhere and walked alongside him, telling him “get out of there immediately; they’re out to get you.” And so he did.
That was it for me. I wrote a two-character one scene
playlet, the title of which I’ve forgotten. I tried it out at The Workshop Theater and, amid excitement, was
encouraged to develop it into a larger work. People say that all the time about one scene or one act works that are read so I paid no attention to the “advise” and
went on to other projects.
In the passing of time I looked at it, added a scene or two and added a character. It was presented at someplace on Eighth Avenue. Through many attempts to move the piece forward, I felt thwarted at every turn by bureaucracy or just plain bad luck. Eventually the play went down to the bottom of the pile and I turned my attention to other works.
Time passed and then my son told me there had been a lynching in Florida and a black sheriff was investigating. How stupid and naïve of me to think that the maxim—“The only thing constant in the universe is change.”—applied to Jim Crow? Perhaps it has. There are now no more group photos or widely advertised family picnics.
So I dug up the play now called Conversation with a Kleagle making it more complex with more characters.
It was read at The Workshop Theater and got me the longest standing ovation I’ve ever had. I was stunned.
I seemed to be bowing forever. It began to dawn on me that maybe I did have something here—with problems, of course—so I turned my full attention on it.
Enter the 2004 New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest,
a project of Merit Theater and Film Group. The play won first prize in the contest. With the subsequent first-prize-reading, I met Sandra Nordgren, Edith O’Hara, and the rest of the wonderful staff at 13thStreet Repertory Co.
After the two developmental readings produced by Merit Theater and Film Group at the Rep, I got to talk to the audience, answer questions, even lecture a little. I
learned how limited people’s knowledge was about Jim Crow, Walter White, and the whole lynching culture.
Two great productions followed at 13th Street Rep.
Additionally, there were two staged readings of the play by Times Square Playwrights and a third is in the works.
Now the idea of a film version came up. As a professor,
I find that most students are curious, not just to make a good impression on me but because they have many unanswered questions, especially today with the murder of Trayvon Martin prevalent in the news.
After the second stage production of this play by 13th Street Rep, people in the educational field insisted that this play be presented to young people all over. They are always saying to me, this play needs to be seen by more young and old alike and overseas as well.
So Sandra Nordgren and I have begun the journey toward Conversation with a Kleagle as a film.
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