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A Closer Look: SOLACE

Playwrights’ Corner

On September 26th and 27th, The Lark will open our doors for the first event of our 2019-20 season, a Studio Retreat reading of Michael Bradford's new play-in-process Solace. The play follows a young woman who receives a call from her father after not hearing from him for 18 years, promising to lay the endless Pacific Ocean at her feet which, by the way, is not blue.

To give audiences a closer look at what went into telling this story, Michael discussed his process with Martyna Majok. Martyna first encountered the play as a fellow playwright in the room during The Lark's Winter Writers' Retreat, when Michael was working on an early draft. Read on for their conversation about Michael's journey as a writer, why he chose the names "Solace" and "Passage" for his characters, and how he creates joy. Check out what they had to say, then join us at the reading!

MARTYNA MAJOK: Firstly, this is a beautiful play. One of the most beautiful I’ve read in a while. I just want you to tell me stories all day long, Michael Bradford. Your words are of the soul—and the gut. And I love your people. I love how you love them. It seems to me you do, the care with which you draw them. How do you create characters? What was the seed for this gorgeous play?

 MICHAEL BRADFORD: I have a play called Building Babel, a post-modern structure play about the fragility of community. There are four stories deconstructed and woven together, bookended by a chorus. The Passage/Solace piece was one of those stories. The original story came from that mysterious place a lot of stories came from, eventually bubbling up from thinking about the ways in which community struggles to rise above our propensity towards destruction, sometimes even of the things we love most. I thought I could simply take the pieces from Babel and write the play around them, but given a larger canvas, all of the characters (Moms, Father, Andre) had much more to say about their sadness and their joy.

MM: “Took me years to get you to pick up your panties and dirty socks off the floor and you speak to him one time.” I’m fascinated by our reasons for leaving—a place, a person, a way of life. For going on a journey—which no one knows whether we’ll come back from or who we’ll come back as. And how difficult that decision to leave can be—even temporarily—when it comes from a need for something maybe unnameable, yet to be discovered. For something unknown and intangible, for a chance or potential, something unseeable at the start of any journey. The argument between Solace and Moms is so rich and well-balanced—especially considering how hard it can be to argue for what you don’t know. Solace seems to be arguing for potential, for a chance to encounter the unknown. And Moms, to me, is arguing for dignity. For the solid dignity and known-ness of their shared past and present. “You make him watch you leave this time.” What did you find most difficult about writing this play? Most surprising? What could you not have anticipated when you began that you would learn from writing this play?

MB: I love Lorca's conversation about the elegiac; missing the thing we never had, an intrinsic desire for a thing we cannot define. My grandparent's raised me, not because my parents were passed, they simply were not present, so I feel I know that strange feeling (and probably why I love Lorca!). Martyna, you hit the nail on the head, Moms is arguing for the "solid dignity of know-ness". I found that giving language to this elusive thing was quite difficult, to write from my experience but not on top of it, bearing down. I found Father to be a much more complicated person than I had imagined, that his leaving was not a simple equation, that although I could never leave my children there were elements of his leaving that I was guilty of as well, and elements of his returning that I could see in myself as well. And I certainly did not anticipate the degree of empathy I would feel for Passage.

MM: What does solace mean to you? What does passage mean to you? Solace at its worst, to me, is loneliness. And at its best, it’s a way to know yourself. Passage, to me, at its worst is abandonment. And at its best, it’s also a way to know yourself—or to become more yourself in the world. I find it interesting and beautiful that you’ve chosen these two names—two experiences that can mean such different things based on the circumstances its feelers find themselves. What are those things two things to you? 

MB: Thank you for this question. I often understand the naming of characters the way I understand life, way after the fact! I originally thought of "Solace" as the comfort she give to her mother, that she would somehow make her Mom's life necessary after the loss of Father into the ether. I have come to think of her as the eye of the storm. "Passage" was first a derivative of the middle passage and the how the history/DNA/devastation of that period continues to lay over the psyche of Black folks in so many ways, driving ways of being in the world that beg for a new consciousness. I have come to think of "Passage" as inherent possibility, maybe that dormant element just waiting to be triggered.

MM: How do you know how to structure and frame (frame!) your play? Do you plan or intuit and respond as you go? What was the thing (image, sound, structure, character, etc) that made you start writing this play? Where does your inspiration and urgency to write come from?

MB: Ok you're really making me work! As crazy (beautiful) as Mac Wellman's work is, he was a stickler on the clarity of structure, at least for me. However successful I am, I am certainly thinking about the genre/style of the play. Hearing the earlier draft with you and others at The Lark greatly helped me identify the need to drive each scene with a clear want/need/desire. How the scenes lay themselves out is still a bit of a mystery to me. If it felt good, I kept it moving, and prayed!

MM: “Whether you love what you love or live in divided ceaseless revolt against it, what you love is your fate.” What do you love? And where do you find (or make) joy these day?

MB: The foundation love for me is my family, my wife and two children (grown folk now) and my grandson. I am never happier than when we all wake up in the same space. Writing feels like an internal necessity and though it is sometimes difficult to get to the desk, when it happens it is bliss. And lastly, I love teaching, engaging, supporting, providing opportunity to students. I love to see them shine.

MM: I still remember the moment of reading the shock of page seven (I won’t spoil it for your audience!). And a moment later I thought it was both the most perfect and brave choice. You pull that rug out from under us pretty quickly. And it just made so much sense to me. We plan for a specific journey—just as I imagine Solace planned for some kind of a specific journey—and then we all have to recalibrate. The journey continues—but much, much differently than we thought and planned for. If we can ever really plan for anything. And so we have to look really at what a journey is—and specifically that journey. Would you tell me about one of your journeys as a writer? Or a human?

MB: Suffice to say I took a lot of wrong turns, learned slow and had a lot of people extend a hand to pull me over some crevices. Day work, the Navy, building submarines, finally going to school in my early thirties; I've certainly meandered, but I always wrote.  Short stories, poems, a lot of horrible writing! While I was stationed near Seattle I saw my first play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and I was done for any other writing but plays. A lot of people could tell much more interesting stories; I'm just glad to be here, loving my peoples.

MM: “You have no idea how well we can survive all the things we don’t know.” I love your characters. “That’s what it is to be where we come from. And you prolly thinkin’ I’m gon’ help you out with that.” I love especially how perceptive and smart they are. What writers do you love? What plays? And what do you love about them?

MB: Pearl Cleage! August. Lorca. José Rivera. Kia Corthron. Suzan-Lori. Lynn Nottage. You! And the beat goes on. All of these writers get under my skin, make me laugh crazy or weep, or think about ways to be a better human being. An elderly man sat beside me through Rivera's Cloud Tectonics and wept through nearly the entire play. I did the same in Lynn's Ruin. August's Ma Rainey's... drove me to the writing table but Two Trains Running made me think maybe I should stop writing. The piece you worked on in our last retreat often made me forget to breath for a really long time.

(LARK INTERJECTION: Folks, Michael's talking about Sanctuary City, and it's playing at New York Theatre Workshop later this season!)

MM: “I know he got ghost but tell me who don’t wanna know the beginning?” What’s your relationship to origin? Do you feel you belong to a place or a person, a way of life? What, if anything, is a question you have about or for your origin?

MB: Because my grandparents raised me (and loved me completely) I felt good in the world. Here and there a question would rise about my parents, who were moving through the world in various ways. As an adult it took me some time to understand there was a degree of mythology about this history that I could not pierce. And some time to make peace with that. It's a curious thing.

MM: Is there anything you want people to know—or think about—going into this story?

MB: Not really. I hope for connections, questions, debate, all those conversations that happen over coffee the next morning. My wife makes a great espresso, and a good conversation with that is a glorious thing.