At the young age of 32, playwright Marcus Gardley has racked up several awards for his plays and is already drawing comparisons to the legendary August Wilson. A sought-after playwright in the regional theater circuit, the Oakland, Calif., native was named one of Dramatists magazine's 50 playwrights to watch.
Gardley's latest foray onto the regional stage is Every Tongue Confess, running at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage until Jan. 2, 2011. The play, starring Phylicia Rashad, is a moving response to an almost forgotten racial inferno of the mid-1990s, when hundreds of black churches in the South were mysteriously burned.
Gardley spoke to The Root about being a young playwright, how he got started and how he really feels about being compared to August Wilson.
The Root: I first heard of you when you were compared to August Wilson in the New York Times. How do you feel about that?
Marcus Gardley: I struggled with that a lot. I love August Wilson, but I don't want to be the second coming of anyone. It's definitely a compliment. But I think in the theater, we tend to put people in boxes. He [Wilson] was more interested in naturalism and realism. And I am not. I appreciate and love naturalism, but I don't do it well. So my fear was, if people came to my play expecting to see a naturalistic play, they'd be turned off by the magic realism that I'm very much in the school of. I hope that the work I create can be in dialogue with his. And I hope more young writers can be a part of this conversation. There's a tendency to pick one. August Wilson was "one" for so many years. He fought to not be the only one. There's a way to celebrate the diversity.
TR: As a storyteller, what are your thoughts about contemporary film and theater?
MG: I see a lot of movies and feel like I can do a better job. It's all about opportunity. Theater has become so expensive, and my audience is young and they can't afford it. My job is to write to all people. Sometimes I think, why am I wasting my time? I honestly don't know why I haven't left [to work in TV or film]. It's just that I'm called to do this. I have had a lot of older people come up to me and say they don't get it. They say my play is too loud. There's too much going on. Subscribers tend to be older and white; I want to find a way to bring more young people and diverse groups into theater.
TR: What was it like growing up in Oakland?
TR: There seems to be a journalistic impulse that started all this for you. How did you first learn about the church burnings that inspired Every Tongue Confess?
MG: When I was in high school in 1996, I was watching the news one night, and there was a report about a church burning. It sparked my interest in a unique way, more than any news report ever did before. So I recall week after week, running home after school to watch the news because there were 300 churches that had burned. Every day there was another church being burned. And they couldn't find the person, and I could not believe it. They weren't really trying.
TR: What's next for you?
MG: I usually work on three plays at the same time so when I get writer's block, I can move to another show. I'm working on a trilogy that's based on the migration of black Seminoles from Florida. I became real interested in this after reading all of Toni Morrison['s books] in one summer. I got fascinated by all-black towns. The first incorporated all-black town is in Oklahoma, where my dad's people are from. These are my ancestors. I started writing a play about them; it just flowed. One play turned into two; two turned into three.
TR: How did you get started writing plays?
MG: I thought I wanted to be an anesthesiologist. I guess [the poet in me] liked the sound of it. Then I thought, Oh no, I don't want to gas people. I want to make people dream. I want to inspire people, give them hope, talk about difficult things. Ask big questions. When I discovered playwriting, everything began to fall in place. It's been a very tumultuous journey. I've done everything on the fly.
Abdul Ali writes about arts and culture for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.