What do you do when your role model might be a racist — and you're black? That's one of the central questions in Mark Leib's Keesha/Carpenter, which opens Feb. 23 at The [email protected] If you read that sentence and said, hey, wait, I know that name but he isn't a playwright, well, you're half right: Most of our readers know Mark Leib as our longtime theater critic, but he is indeed a playwright. To give you more insight into the man behind this new play — and our reviewer — we gave him The Seven Questions.
When did you write your first play, and what was it about?
I wrote my first play Muddle in 1976 when I was spending a year at the University of Bristol in England on a scholarship right out of college. It was about an Everyman character named Muddle and his adventures all over a crazy, dangerous world. Because I knew next to nothing about theater budgets, the play needed 64 actors and 16 sets. The actors at the Theatre Department in Bristol performed the first scene on their stage — and that’s the closest this behemoth ever got to a production.
You’re also a theater professor at USF and you review plays for CL Tampa. That’s a pretty theater-centric life; what are your non-theater passions?
My non-theater passions are my family — amazing wife Elizabeth and wonderful son Jeremy — and playing guitar, playing tennis (weekly, with a high school friend from Plant High, 1971), and reading: Most recently the collected stories of Joyce Carol Oates, Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout, and the literary criticism of John Updike. I’m also very interested in Judaism and Jewish studies, so I read some Talmud or Midrash or Codes of Law every day. And oh yes, I’m working on the rewrite of a novel about religion, love/sex, and the art of writing. The first draft printed out at 423 pages.
Tell us a little about Keesha/Carpenter: What inspired you to write this play?
There were four sources of inspiration for Keesha/Carpenter. I was teaching (in the USF English Department, where I’m a Continuing Instructor) a class called “Cultural Studies and Pop Arts,” and I was focusing on the presentation of African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians in American theater before 1970. The more I learned about the misrepresentation of these groups, the more I wanted to write something on the subject. That’s when the character of Keesha occurred to me. I also wanted to write something about the New England universities I attended before I came back to the Tampa Bay area, and that’s where Professor Carpenter came from. Around the same time, a dear friend discovered that his wife had Alzheimer’s disease; and she was the inspiration for Professor Carpenter’s wife. Finally, I wanted to discuss racism in our supposedly “post-racial” society.
That's a great insight into how you drafted the play. Could you give us another insight? Your reviews often get criticized for focusing too much on the script and not enough on the production. What’s your response to that?
I want my readers to understand just what it is that the actors and director are bringing to life when I praise or criticize their work. I don‘t think it makes sense to say that “Meryl Streep was wonderful in A Morning in Miami” unless I’ve first established the play’s plot and the demands placed on the performer. Further, I think that audiences do care about the story and want to know if it’s interesting — or even profound — enough to deserve their ticket money. Add to this the fact that I was trained as a playwright, and I think you’ve got your answer.
What’s your next play going to be about?
I have two plays in mind and I don’t know which I’ll write first. One is about a hippie/radical in the 1960s. The other is a surreal play taking place in the New World just after Columbus’s first voyage.
You’ve been present at some of the rehearsals for Keesha/Carpenter; how much input do you have into the production?
The director, Bob Devin Jones, has a penetrating mind and sees elements of my play that even I didn’t notice. He also listens when I talk to him — after rehearsals, not during — about my own thoughts and concerns. Occasionally, when a difficult point comes up with the actors, Bob asks me to explain my intentions to him and them. It’s a pleasure to attend rehearsals when I’m able to, and it’s clear that we’re all — director, actors, playwright — working toward the same result. And no one has an ego problem.
How did The [email protected] come to produce this show?
About a year ago or so, I had the inspiration to send Bob the script. Weeks went by, and then one afternoon he called me to say he found the play “delicious” and wanted to produce and direct it. Seven years ago, The [email protected] produced my play American Duet — directed by Karla Hartley — and I had fine memories of that. So it was only a case of finding a time slot and the right actors. Jai Shanae is a strong Keesha, Bob Heitman is an intimidating Carpenter, and Chris Rutherford is a delightful Andrew. I can hardly wait to see what they’ll be up to by opening night.
Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa. Who do you want to know more about? Email Cathy at [email protected].