Playwright explores race issues in play premiering at Centre

October 20, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Herman Daniel Farrell III toyed with the idea of playwriting for years. Twenty years ago this month, he says, he left law school to write his first play.

"I wrote the play and put it up a year later," says the Centre College Humana Visiting Professor, a native of New York and a resident of Midway. "It was quite awful."

Eventually Farrell returned to law school, earning a J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 1989. But while one foot stayed firmly in politics and law, the other stayed firmly in theater. He earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University in playwriting in 1994.

Now, he has written "The Beloved Community," a commissioned piece that will see its world premiere at Centre Nov. 5-8. He says he started the play in June and wrapped up writing it in September, with a few re-writes and additions since then. The play looks at three Civil Rights Movement activists who return to a contemporary liberal arts college campus to lecture about their experiences marching in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and the summer they spent together.


Farrell says Act I ends with a "brouhaha," and the ensuing two acts explore the activists' relationships with each other and the students. The students and "elders" write performance pieces based on the experiences of the '60s activists, creating a play within a play.

He says he worked on rewrites for about three weeks, adding in "the voices and the ideas of the student characters" from the student actors, Farrell notes.

"I needed to be on campus a little bit to hear about race issues," he says.

Path to Danville and the arts

Farrell had been teaching at the University of Kentucky as well as writing plays when he began checking around with other communities to see if anyone had need of a playwright.

"Tony (Haigh, professor of dramatic arts at Centre and director of "The Beloved Community") bit," Farrell says. "He was looking to fill a (season schedule) slot."

Farrell proposed a couple of his previously produced plays to Haigh, who asked if he had anything else. The playwright says he told Haigh he had a play he'd been wanting to write; it was "The Beloved Community."

Farrell says he's always been interested in racial issues. His father, who ran for mayor of New York City in 1985, is black; his mother is white. Throughout college and law school, he says, he was always thinking about issues of multi-culturalism.

"In 1988, I decided I wanted to be in the arts," Farrell says, adding he continues to practice law part-time as well as writing plays and screenplays.

In 1999, another of Farrell's plays, "Desegregation," was performed at the University of Kentucky. That play was about the desegregation of UK, and also used the play within a play technique.

Before "Desegregation," "Union" was performed in 1991 at Lehman College in New York. "Union" marked the beginning of subject matter to which Farrell continues to return. He says sometimes artists need to stick with topics for a while to explore them fully.

"It's been 10 years that I've been exploring these issues and writing about them," notes Farrell, who has lived in Kentucky since 1998.

Farrell has written 30 plays as well as working as co-screenwriter for the cable movie "Boycott," about the Montgomery bus boycott. The film received a Peabody Award and an NAACP Image Award. Actor Jeffrey Wright, for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in "Boycott," received an AFI Award. "Boycott" also was selected as on of the 2001 Top 5 Made for Teleivion/Cable Movies by People and Entertainment Weekly magazines.

Farrell also was awarded the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival Playwriting Award for "Portrait of a President," a play tied in with the Bill Clinton White House that came out of a visit there. Currently, he is working on "Rome," a play focused on the George W. Bush presidency, featuring two conservative and two liberal characters.

"They engage in conversations that give the idea of where we are in Bush America," notes Farrell.

After Bush, he's turning to George Washington.

George Washington?

"I was walking through the White House, seeing the portraits of the presidents," he explains. "In the Washington (portrait), which is famous, he is standing, and he's (featured) full-length, and he's the only one in the picture."

Haigh pointed out to Farrell the significance of Washington's portrait.

"He said that in the context of 18th-century England, the only person who would get such a portrait was the king," Farrell explains. "And the portrait is wonderful. Washington has his hand out, saying 'I give you this.'"

And what Washington is giving are two books - a tome about the American Revolution and another about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Farrell is fascinated with Washington's vital role in the development of the United States in its infancy, and his key function in The Revolutionary War - and that Washington walked away from the power he had.

But he'll likely never move far away from his deep interest in issues of race and this question: Do we come together in harmony and understanding, or are we, as a people, separated by race?

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