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Race, Identity & History Collide in USF Play

Apr 3, 2014

The story that the road weeps, the well runs dry is based on - the migration of “Black Seminoles” from Florida to Oklahoma in the mid 19th century - isn't exactly well-known.

Even members of the cast and crew of the play opening at USF tonight for a two-week run admit they didn’t have too much of an idea what it was about at first.

"I feel like I didn’t learn this in history class at all," actress Tiffany Schultz says, while student assistant director Carlos Garcia adds, "I think it’s very interesting how it touches upon a part of history that is so seldom spoken about."

And while director/USF Assistant Professor Fanni Green admits she wasn't familiar with the history, "It’s a story that would be great to have in an educational institution."

But the setting of the play – the small city of Wewoka, Oklahoma – inspired playwright Marcus Gardley, whose grandmother was born there.

"This is what was the spark for me to write this play in the beginning and I was really interested in my own history, my own familial history," Gardley says, "and so I feel like in a lot of ways this play is coming full circle."

Gardley set the road weeps in the time surrounding the Civil War - while the first act starts in 1850 and leads up to the war, the second act follows it.

It tells the story of “Black Seminoles” – African-Americans, including escaped slaves, and Native Americans who together fled Florida for Oklahoma, where they established Wewoka, one of the country’s earliest black towns. Their faith and personal identities, already a mix of religions and races, are further threatened when the town's water well runs dry.

That melting pot of races appeals to both Schultz and Green, but for different reasons.

Schultz plays a Seminole, Mary South. In reality, the USF senior’s mom is African-American, while her dad is German and Italian-American.

"All things, when it comes to mixing of races, I’m automatically intrigued, and I want to know what’s going on," she says. "Within the play, because the Seminole culture is very heavy and the black culture also is, there’s different rituals that come with each culture. So, trying to see how each culture identifies, and when they’re mixed is interesting as well."

For Green, it's more about the diversity in casting.

"Trying to tell the story in skin palette was a wonderful, wonderful exercise because it creates for us, hopefully, a patchwork that we don’t necessarily think about in our popular culture," Green says.

She adds that some of the characters are based on real people, which helps the cast find their muse.

"What’s wonderful for a student actor is to take references from history, from a live character, not necessarily for the student actor to look like the person, but to at least get enough information about that person to help develop some insights for the actor," Green says.

The play is part of a trilogy Gardley wrote. A number of his previous works have been nominated for awards, including Every Tongue Confess, which starred Phylicia Rashad and was directed by renowned Broadway director Kenny Leon.

As part of the Lark Play Development Center’s Launching New Plays into the Repertoire Initiative, the road weeps has been produced by three other theater companies around the country - the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska, and the Pillsbury House and Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As the only university chosen, students get the chance to work closely with professional actors from the other productions. That includes Perri Gaffney, who again plays the character Half-George, a role she originally had in Juneau.

"It’s wonderful to work with different people and see what they see, which is entirely different yet it’s the same beautifully scripted, poetic verses that Marcus has written this time around," Gaffney says. "I watch what they (the students) are doing and everybody has in their mind, when they read a script, what the person would look like, talk like, think like, and it’s always refreshing to see what someone else interprets it, whether they’re a student or not."

And Gardley is also thrilled to have his play presented by students.

"Because the play is very much about legacy and passing down one’s history to young people," Gardley says. "Sso actually having young artists be a part of this play as well as an actress who has done the play before, it’s like the best of all the worlds coming together to present this work, it’s very exciting."

And Green hopes that her cast and crew can reward Gardley's faith by sharing his message of identity and community.

"When we walk into a room, the first decision we make about a person is when we look at them, before they even open their mouths," she says. "And so, I hope that part of the fabric of this story is told in that way as well."

The USF School of Theatre and Dance presents the road weeps, the well runs dry April 3rd through 6th and 9th through 13th in Theatre 2 on the Tampa campus.

Each performance will either be preceded or followed by various stories, poetry readings, discussions or dance or musical performances. The show contains adult themes and content.

For tickets, go to Ticketmaster.com or contact the USF Theatre Box Office at 813-974-2323.