The Play’s The Thing

By Melba Tolliver

     Once upon a time there was a place called Greenwood.  Let it never be forgotten.

This is the last line in Celeste Bedford Walker’s Greenwood: An American Dream Destroyed. When I heard those words in the first public reading of Walker’s play they left me wondering.  Were the words a desperate plea? An ominous warning?   Or both?   They come at the close of the play’s final act, spoken by the photojournalist character.  He is an outsider invited to document the glory of an unapoligetically all-black Oklahoma town. But the visitor ends up bearing witness to the town’s destruction  in two days of race riots in 1921.

Back row: Bernadette Drayton, Lawrence Cherry,Jimmy Gary Jr., Dathan B. Williams, Byron C. Saunders, Akil Williams, Guy Whitlock, Marlene Villafane, Charles B Murray, Anthony Goss, Elijah Bland and Jalene Goodwin. Seated: Playwright: Celeste Bedford Walker Yvette Ganier, Director: Lynnie Godfrey and Brenda Denmark

Back row: Bernadette Drayton, Lawrence Cherry,Jimmy Gary Jr., Dathan B. Williams, Byron C. Saunders, Akil Williams, Guy Whitlock, Marlene Villafane, Charles B Murray, Anthony Goss, Elijah Bland and Jalene Goodwin. Seated: Playwright: Celeste Bedford Walker, Yvette Ganier, Director: Lynnie Godfrey and Brenda Denmark

For now, the place called Greenwood and the people—proud and  prosperous —-who built it are not forgotten.  Far from it. Both are being remembered—in fact and  in fiction—in Bethlehem, in New York City , in Los Angeles—-and wherever folks have access to cable TV if a production now being developed pans out.   

First,  to Walker’s Greenwood.  An  original work by the Houston-based playwright, it  had its first public reading last month at  SteelStacks in Bethlehem. The reading, directed by award-winning actress  and Broadway veteran Lynnie Godfrey, played to an enthusiastic and engaged audience, most of whom had never heard of the Oklahoma town or the riots that ruined it . 

 Walker spent years digging into the facts surrounding the town’s destruction by white terrorists. Writing and re-writing, incorporating history with the story of  a Depression era community whose wealth and self-sufficiency had earned it the title “ black wall street”  Walker finally felt the work was finished and let it go.   A regional theatre took over production of the piece, originally Black Wall Street.   

But as fate and the creative muse would have it, Walker wasn’t done yet. The regional production was an audience failure. As it happened, Lynnie Godfrey got wind of the play and the story moved her, she saw  huge potential in Walker’s work.  So Godfrey reached out to the playwright,  shared her vision of how to re-work the play and together they began taking it to another level.  In phone conversations and  email and maybe with a bit of ESP thrown in, the author and the director took the play down to its bare bones and then re-built it scene by inspired scene.

 “We did not intend it as a documentation of the event,” says Godfrey speaking about the real Oklahoma race riot.  “ But what it (the race riot) did to people.  We built it around the family.”

And so it is not the gunfire, not the dead bodies of 300 black residents, not the arson fires that wiped out businesses, hospitals, schools and  left 9-thousand people homeless, and  not the vicious rioters  that keep Greenwood audiences riveted in their seats. Instead they watch  generations of the  fictional Boley family face and then deal with raw truth:  social prominence and wealth may appear solid, but are in fact only tentative,  always subject to forces beyond one’s control, forces fueled by envy and hatred.

Molly Boley, played by Godfrey  is the class conscious,  steely gatekeeper of the family’s social  status.  A veteran of Broadway, Godfrey is superb in the role, peeling  away what Molly uses to cover her vulnerable core  as a  wife and mother and the family member who  is most devastated  by the riots.  In what turns out to be excruciatingly  bad timing, Molly  has invited a photojournalist to town expecting he will come away with a glowing report about Greenwood.   Instead, the riots, sparked by accusations of a young black man making advances on a white woman, upend Molly’s attempts at self-promotion and give the photojournalist fodder for an entirely different story than the one Molly intended.  The family’s rude awakening is shared by other characters whose lives intersect with the  Boley’s. 

Walker acknowledges that playwriting, as with any writing, can be pretty lonely and she says having a partner in Godfrey was a blessing.  “I was so delighted to work with someone as gifted as Lynnie.  She made great contributions to this script.”

Collaboration is obviously part of the total Godfrey package and keystone of a process  she has aptly named “From the Page to the Stage and Screen.” With SteelStacks as the venue and ArtsQuest as the artist incubator, Godfrey is the catalyst for providing a safe space where the projects of  writers, actors,  and other word-workers and performers can be polished and road-tested.  Charles White is an example. A playwright and lawyer, White had the benefit of Godfrey directing a first public reading of his Unentitled last June. “I once heard that you should make your plays director-proof because directors will ruin your vision,” White says.  “That is not the case.  She (Godfrey) was a marvelous director, wonderful to work with.”

White’s Unentitled, like Walker’s Greenwood, explores the dynamics of financially well-off black families.  What happens when unexpected events force hard choices on such families,  threatens their status, and undermines the images they hold of themselves? Q&A sessions  which Godfrey held immediately after both  readings gave the  director and the actors a chance to hear audience comments and field their questions.

Most of the Greenwood audience  admitted that their knowledge of American history didn’t include the Oklahoma riots or those that wrecked  58 similar  black communities in the early 1900’s. One person  even remarked that he found the wealth of Greenwood blacks, “unbelievable ” because he had no idea that wealthy black people existed.

Godfrey’s collaborative approach saw both Bethlehem readings repeated at off- Broadway venues in New York City. And five actors from Unentitled  were in the eleven member cast of  Greenwood.   Jalene Goodwin brought a youthful and winning playfulness to both readings as a daughter who takes for granted the material things her moneyed parents can give her, but rebels against their class-conscious rules.  Brenda Thomas Denmark was  a standout in both readings. Though the characters differed, Denmark was thoroughly believable , both as the stylish mother-in-law in Unentitled  and the entrepreneurial  Boley family matriarch who  helped keep Greenwood money circulating within the community. The photojournalist was  given a strong presence as played by Dathan B. Williams.  Willing to see and report the picture Molly wants to paint of her beloved town, he  cannot escape the racial undertow  surging  just below its surface.


What’s next for Greenwood and Unentitled?  The question pops up after every reading and Godfrey and crew have been ready with some possibilities:   Workshop productions with sets and costumes. Maybe even Broadway if the readings result in the kind of word-of-mouth that attracts “angels” with investment dollars.

Yet more evidence of Greenwood’s re-surfacing  is Tulsa a 4-hour made-for-tv mini-series currently in development for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) where money is apparently not a challenge.  Based on the same 1921 race riot history that inspired playwright Walker’s Greenwood, Tulsa also reportedly plans to  center its plot on a fictional family.

In a call to a reporter for the Tulsa World who wrote one of the first stories about the OWN mini-series I learned that it is still in the works, though the cameras have yet to roll  and it’s not certain when or where it will be shot. 

Almost daily, news headlines from Missouri, and Staten Island and elsewhere in America give weight to Walker’s closing line, “Let us not forget.”   Are those words  a passionate plea? Or a worn-out warning?  And who among us is really listening?

Meanwhile, Godfrey already has plans for her and ArtsQuest’s next project:  a play reading in March of Lois’s Wedding by Bethlehem publisher and writer Bathsheba Monk.