Telling Our Stories: Exploring Fanni Green’s Community Engaged Production of “the road weeps”
USF Theatre professor Fanni Green may have thought that a production of Marcus Gardley's the road weeps, the well runs dry would be impossible to stage on campus, but she "fell in love with his words" and didn't let the impossible stand in her way. On a bit of a lark, she applied for a grant from the Lark Play Development Center, and she got it.
One of Green's former classmates, who is now affiliated with the Lark's Launching New Plays in the Repertoire Initiative, suggested that USF throw its hat in the ring for the chance to stage Gardley's epic play. the road weeps involves flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout a variety of periods in American history, which Green thought would be a monumental undertaking for a university theater with an undergraduate student company.
"Ultimately, it was too big of a challenge to say 'no' to. You shouldn't say 'no' to something that big and that good," said Green, who already seeks to incorporate the community into everything she does, because she believes that reaching new audiences and gaining feedback from the community is essential to her work in the theater as a professor, director, and actress.
Green is highly regarded for her impactful work related to important social themes, including her original piece, What the Heart Remembers: The Women and Children of Darfur that she directed and co-authored with USF Dance Professor Jeanne Travers. The piece was selected for the International Collegiate Theatre Festival (part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) and was nominated for an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award.
the road weeps, about a small group of native Seminoles, freedmen, and black Seminoles, who were forced by our government to relocate from Florida to Indian Territory traversing what is known as the "Trail of Tears," deals with important themes of identity, migration, and education. The characters form the first all-black town in the country, Wewoka, Oklahoma.
Cast and Crew of the road weeps, the well runs dry
A key component of the Lark Initiative, itself in its inaugural year, was that the selected theaters (four for each of three plays mounted) ensure that the community be involved in all aspects of the development and production of the play.
To endeavor on the three-year journey to produce the play, the road weeps team, including Green, USF Theatre and Dance Marketing Coordinator Amanda Clark, and the USF students involved in the production, launched a series of events for local community groups to introduce them to Gardley's work.
As with any good engagement project, Green and Clark reached out to people in their own backyard first, by working with on-campus partners, including the USF Humanities Institute, the Institute on Black Life, WUSF, USF Multicultural Affairs, the USF Library, and the College of the Arts Dean's Office, many of which assisted with funding and collaborative programming. Green focused on developing on-campus community partners, because, as she said, "we don't collaborate a lot across campus." Big sweeping projects like this one require quite a lot of audience buy-in, so it made sense to connect with others who would naturally resonate with the play.
In the future, she would like to coordinate the production schedule to build collaborations with other programs taking place on campus. She thinks it will "spike interest" if other campus-based organizations and departments sponsor events related to the themes of the plays. Laying the groundwork for this kind of connectivity in the future was a great side effect of the production schedule. Additionally, with enough advance notice, faculty can build campus productions into their syllabi.
Green and Clark also reached out to the broader community to better understand "what indigenous people have had to fight for and carve out for themselves," as part of their collective experiences. This part of the process was more challenging; they dealt with some community partners saying of the road weeps "this isn't my experience." Especially difficult for some was the depiction of a same-sex relationship, which, Green said, prompted a few community partners to "put a pin it" and say they couldn't relate. But Green didn't let this deter her. She believed there were enough different aspects of the play that everyone should be able to find a place at the table to discuss it.
She said "you can own whatever part of the play you want," but you have to be a part of the discussion. The play "had to stand for itself and open a door to a particularized experience" as interpreted by Gardley, but a theatrical experience never fully represents the unique experiences of a group. She said, "it's based on the historical relationship, but it is a drama. It's mythical, magical, and it's poetry." What great art does beautifully is help us find a way to talk about our own experiences by discovering an entry point to relate to the fictionalized larger-than-life characters on stage.
Green and Clark also developed strong partnerships with WMNF radio and Studio@620 in St. Petersburg for the Radio Theatre Project; and USF students recorded Gardley's first play in the trilogy (the road weeps is the second) called the rocks are gonna cry out in February, 2013 and then the road weeps in February, 2014. Community partners were able to meet Gardley, an opportunity that deepened the audience's connection to the play.
Given that a "main ingredient" of the play was "about a community of people and the ways they tell their own stories," Green felt that storytelling had to be a major focus of the community engagement component of the grant. The original plan was to teach summer courses related to the road weeps; however, campus budget cuts led the team to regroup and choose instead to offer storytelling workshops. Ultimately, Green said in the end this was a "wonderful alternative, reaching more people." Green conducted two-part Storytelling Workshops at Caleb's Motivational Camp, WMNF, Voices of Recovery (a veteran's group), and University Village (an assisted living facility). In the workshops, the former soldiers were able to better express the emotions they had regarding their service when she asked them, "If you were to play a character that didn't have to be you, but could portray your experience, how would you do it?" This helped them tap into their own experience without having to make it personal.
Fanni Green (center) at a Multicultural Luncheon
Like the teenage boys in the play who go on a vision quest, she asked Caleb's Motivational Campteens to connect with what they have been told about their own history and a vision of what they wanted to be in ten years "to create a story about who they are and who they want to be."
Green wants to develop a Storytelling Festival, as a joint effort with the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, which she feels is ideally suited to our campus. She said, "USF is the home base of our students. It is a place of diversity. It's micro-global, and a microcosm of global experiences." She wants to make sure students learn how to create community on campus while honoring their own heritage and personal stories before they can determine how they will impact the world.
A natural connector, Green said, "I learned a long time ago everybody you meet becomes part of your network." At OCEP, we are certainly glad that she and Clark are a part of our network and hope to collaborate with the USF Department of Theatre and Dance on a variety of future projects.
To listen to the recorded performances of the first two parts of the Gardley trilogy, click on the links below.
- rocks are gonna cry out (WMNF/Studio@620 Radio Theatre Project recording)
- the road weeps, the well runs dry (WMNF/Studio@620 Radio Theatre Project recording)
by Bonnie Silvestri, JD, OCEP Director of Strategic Communications