Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ernest Gaines: A Timeless Storyteller

Ernest J. Gaines
(Photo by Joseph Sanford, courtesy Ernest J. Gaines Center)

Slidell Little Theatre's production of "A Lesson Before Dying" was adapted for the stage from the novel of the same name, written by Ernest J. Gaines. SLT's production is onstage through March 20, 2016.

By Cheylon Woods
In 1933 a child came into this world with so much potential to learn from, be influenced by, and influence the world around him. As the world was slipping in to political and economic devastation, no one knew that a small boy born on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana would become Ernest J. Gaines, One of the most prolific and timeless authors of the 20th century.
Growing up on a plantation gave Ernest J. Gaines a unique type of perspective on life. Gifted with the talent of honest observation, as a child Gaines was able to perceive the crux of complicated social issues such as race, gender and class. He was also able to see how people influenced their world around them and how, in return, they were influenced by the world. As he embarked on his career he used all of the things her learned from River Lake Plantation, adolescence, and San Francisco State University to create honest depictions of how he saw life in the South. Mr. Gaines used the information he gleamed from observing personal interactions throughout his life to create characters that wholly embodied the essence of being alive. Characters like Miss Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Catherine (Catherine Carmier), Louis (Of Love and Dust), and James and Jefferson (A Lesson Before Dying) all embody a realness that draws you deeper into your own awareness about self and the world you live in.
It is this realness that makes the work of Ernest J. Gaines so timeless and pointed. All of his books paint a complex picture of real life filled with love, sadness, hardship, betrayal, mistreatment, and hope that resonates beyond the Civil Rights Era. His novels and short stories strike at the heart of real issues such as racism, oppression of all kinds, miscarriage of justice, gender inequality,  while showing us that through it all people can still love, learn, be strong, progress, and care about one another and their places that shaped them.
The topics that can be found in Gaines’ writing are not only as old as humanity, but have been driving forces in shaping civilization, both good and bad, as we know it. To this day some are looking for ways to ensure equality for all while others may be looking to secure their personal power. We still look for love and acceptance while there are those who look  to live a life strictly by their own whims, unconcerned with who or what gets hurt in that process. Throughout his work, and throughout his career, Gaines strove to show the world a mirror of itself through a Southern lens. He crafted people from different upbringings, with different interests and peculiarities, and showed us both the good and the bad in all. Readers can find some vestige of themselves in all of his characters, and are reminded that they possess as many complexities as those on the page. His work forces us to think about our own perceptions reality and righteousness and how these ideas actually work in our own communities.  
 Common themes throughout Gaines’ work are the ideas of justice and accountability. In almost every novel there is some measure of justice and accountability, although often subtle. A Lesson Before Dying is one of his more powerful novels that directly puts these issues in the forefront for the reader. This book not only looks at the idea of justice and the justice system, but it also calls the idea of masculinity, advocacy, reality, and community responsibility to the forefront of our minds. All of the characters are confronted with their ideas of right and wrong through the incarceration of one man, and throughout the book you see how each character comes to some kind of terms with the idea of justice as it relates to the society that they live in. Gaines expertly crafted the story and characters of this book in a way that conveyed the true weight such an incident would have on a small community and community leaders today. In 2016 most people who read A Lesson Before Dying can remember at least one time during their lifetime where something similar happened, and their community (physical community or intellectual community) discussed the ideas of justice and personal accountability.
Ernest J. Gaines has created some of the most moving and accessible pieces of literature of the 20th century. He wrote during a time of social awakening which is reflected throughout his work. He strove to show the humanity in all and all of humanity, and succeeded doing so in such a way that is never dated. His characters are not locked in some era from so long ago, distanced from us by a great cultural chasm of days long gone, but are real, breathing and visible to us today. The plots and the characters created by Gaines so beautifully reflect the complexities that is life and humanity that they still resonate with readers more than fifty years since his career began. This in itself is the mark of a great author, and this is the mark of great literature. 

Cheylon Woods is the director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is also the Center’s archivist and ULL assistant professor of Library Science. She received an MLIS from LSU and an MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

‘Tricked’ Into Acting, Williams Discovers Passion For Theatre

By Don Redman

Will Williams was a successful pharmacist, enjoying life as a husband and father of three children when he says he was tricked into acting at Slidell Little Theatre and he has never been the same.
Will Williams

Since his stage debut in the 1991 production of I’m Not Rappaport, Williams has appeared in the HBO series, Treme, as well as the movie, The Runner, featuring Nicholas Cage, and several independent films. But live theater remains his primary passion. He developed his craft in New Orleans at the Anthony Bean Community Theater and has appeared on stage at regional theaters in Houston, Pittsburgh, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio.

Will was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences, by August Wilson in 1993. Since that first introduction, he has become sort of a fixture in Wilson’s plays within the New Orleans theater arena.
He has recently returned from Ohio participating in a festival of August Wilson’s works and has been asked to return to take on a role in another Wilson work as soon as he completes directing A Lesson Before Dying at SLT.

Will's route to the stage is a convoluted and amusing story that began about 25 years ago when he was coaching his son’s youth basketball team and looking for a place to practice. That lead him first to Gwen Wade, the principal of Alton Elementary at the time, who then recruited Will to participate in Leadership Slidell (now Leadership   Northshore). It was through the community leadership development program that Will met Dr. Joan Archer, Leadership Slidell’s curriculum facilitator and a longtime patron of Slidell Little Theatre – and, according to Will, a devilish trickster.

It was during SLT’s 1991-1992 Season that Will was “tricked” by Joan into becoming an actor. He explains: “During a segment covering Cultural Events, Joan assigns me to cover an audition at SLT to become familiar with the organization’s workings. So, I appear at the audition ready to take notes and to my surprise I am asked by the director of the play, I’m Not Rappaport, to read for a character, Midge Carter, an old Black man. I explained to the director that I was only there to cover the audition for an assignment by Joan Archer. He told me that was not what was told to him by Joan Archer.”
Realized he had been set up by Joan Archer, Will reluctantly read for the part, largely because he didn’t want to appear rude. A week later, he received a call from the director asking him to start attending rehearsals for he had been cast in a leading role. Will met the director at the theatre and protested the casting, explaining he had never done theatre in his life.

One of the co-leads in the production – Bob Gault – overheard the conversation and became enraged that the theatre was trying to rope Will into a role that he did not want or ever intended to audition for. “(Bob) practically cussed the director out,” Will recalled. 

But there was a reason Joan Archer and others were adamant for Will to audition and accept the role. When a playwright specifies a character’s race, the theatre is obligated to cast the role accordingly or must cancel or postpone the production until the role is filled as written. “SLT had scheduled I’m Not Rappaport, a play that called for a role of an old black guy  conversing  on a park bench with an old Jewish guy, without considering where they were going to get the old black guy from,” Will explained. “The season line-up hinged on them securing an old black guy as the co-lead in the play.” 

Recognizing the theatre’s dilemma, Will reluctantly agreed to take the role. “The long and the short of it, I’m Not Rappaport  became my first play(not by choice); Bob Gault became my best friend in Slidell Little Theater (by choice); I received the Ginny Award that year for Best Actor; and SLT completed its season without canceling a show.”  
Will Williams, seated next to the late Bob Gault,
with the cast of SLT's 1991 production of I'm Not Rappaport
It wasn’t until a couple of months after his debut on stage that Will realized he had been bitten by the acting bug when he was asked to perform in a staged production of Driving Miss Daisy. “My wife insisted that I do the show because she had just read the book,” he said. After that, he was definitely hooked.

“I was attracted to theatre after meeting and working with so many people that really loved what they were doing,” he said. “The passion put into performing by all involved became sort of intoxicating.”

He maintains his interest in theatre today because he relishes the opportunity to allow audiences to see themselves portrayed on stage, as characters with whom they can identify or empathize. “It is fascinating to hear people say to you after they have seen a live stage play, ‘That was my uncle or father or brother or friend up there.’”

When offering advice to actors, Will passes along the words of wisdom he received from the artistic director at the Anthony Bean Community Theater in New Orleans: “Sit on a busy corner of any city or town and watch and listen to the people that pass by—they will tell and show you all you need to know about them.”

Will has come a long way from his first cold read from a script for I’m Not Rappaport, and he has developed some opinions about the auditioning process. “I have come to conclude that no matter how you prepare, it is all decided by some person that has it in his mind what type of ‘look’ he or she wants on his stage or in his film,” Will said. “You may deliver a perfect word-for-word monologue and if that person does not see you as what he sees in his mind, you are not getting that part. So don’t sweat it. Learn to take rejection, but prepare to the best of your ability.”