Playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson actively defies categorization. She has written successfully for theatre, film and television, crossed with ease the line between drama and comedy, and created an unusual literary voice which combines pure theatricality with poetic flourish and cinematic technique. Mothers her latest stage effort, presented last spring at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company under the direction of Shirley Jo Finney confirmed McGhee-Anderson’s gift for gracefully combining seemingly disparate elements.
Enthusiastically received first during readings at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, and then at Crossroads’ 1992 Genesis Festival of New Voices, Mothers became McGhee-Anderson’s second mainstage production at the New Brunswick theatre in as many seasons. Her first was 1992’s Oak and Ivy, a lyrical work which dramatizes the lives and marriage of African-American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore.
Mothers deals with the parallel stories of Jean, a tough Kentuckian, and Mariko, a Japanese-American, whose lives correspond in crucial ways: each resides in a 1960s Chicago tenement, has been abandoned by an African-American husband, and is dedicated to raising a mixed-race, teenage daughter. The project was commissioned by Bill Cosby and based largely on interviews McGhee-Anderson conducted with two women Cosby met during his travels. The playwright (herself the mother of a 15-year-old son) was also inspired by her own mother.
“I was raised in a family where there was a mandate to work politically, to raise controversial issues and to fight,” McGhee-Anderson says. Both of her parents had been noteworthy civil rights activists; her grandparents, with Thurgood Marshall as their attorney, fought a groundbreaking equal-housing case in the 1940s. “I was always expected to continue in that tradition,” she adds, “and, in my own way, I think I have.”
Although dedicated to writing about issues of political and social importance, McGhee-Anderson is also something of a rebel when it comes to literary form. Her work utilizes monologue and poetry, manipulation of time and space, verbal duets and live musical accompaniment, melded into a dense, seamless flow of storytelling. The distinctive style comes from years of study and practice in writing for both stage and screen. “When I wrote my first play as an undergraduate at Spelman College, a professor remarked that it was highly cinematic,” she recalls. “At that time, I didn’t even know what that meant, but I had of course been influenced by movies, as was everyone from my generation.”
After a brief stint as a journalist with the Detroit Free Press, McGhee-Anderson combined her interests in theatre and cinema by earning an M.F.A. in directing at Columbia University’s Film School, and went on to become a film editor and cinema professor at Howard University. During these years, her writing for the stage grew more and more reliant on cinematic techniques like cross-cutting and parallel story structure.
“I found the effect of cutting together different images incredibly potent,” McGhee-Anderson recalls. “It’s like alchemy. I don’t think in a straight line. Words flow for me in a kind of impressionistic weave. It was only when I threw away all of the structural expectations I had been taught in writing class that I began to find my voice.
“No matter how resistant people may be to an intellectual argument,” she continues, “they respond to the emotional experience of theatre. Though I love experimenting with form, it’s always in an attempt to drive the point home or to work the emotions.”
In Mothers, McGhee-Anderson deals simultaneously with race issues, sexual politics, single parenthood and multiculturalism. The America depicted in the play is a country in which racism is part of the social fiber, a daily reality for the characters. As the newly Americanized Mariko is told by a fellow Army wife, becoming an American means “learning what not to like.”
“My concern is to tell the blunt, terrible truth about the damage done to |others’ in this country,” McGhee-Anderson says, “to examine how many feel rejection and hatred and indifference on a daily basis. I would love for my work to stand for itself,” she continues, “and not be filtered through reactions to the fact that I am black, female, of a certain age or even that I’m a light-skinned black person, which, for those theatres mainly wanting a minority to fill some sort of quota, might be interpreted as my not being |black enough.'”
Another kind of bias she has encountered, McGhee-Anderson explains, is from theatre directors whose vision of her has been tainted because she has made a living writing for series television. “It’s often difficult to do more than one thing,” she says, “but I’ve always resisted that kind of categorization because I’ve been so narrowly and negatively defined by it all my life. My job is to keep tapping into my own vision in whatever way it presents itself to me.”