The New York Times review of the 1985 premiere of Trenton-native William Mastrosimone’s play “Tamer of Horses” — at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick — was clear: “In aspiration, it is noble. In theatricality, it is stunning. The dialogue hits right in the gut. By turns, audiences get all charged up and choked up.”
Regional audiences will get another look at the play — one of the prolific writer’s favorites — when Trenton’s professional Passage Theater premieres a revised version of the play, beginning Thursday, May 15, and running through Sunday, June 8.
The play focuses on a young married couple, educators Ty and Georgiane Fletcher, who have just purchased a farm and have decided to take in a ward of the state. The couple is black. In the original production, the teenage boy, Hector, is white. So is the playwright, who received an award from the Los Angeles NAACP when the play premiered there in 1986.
While his play has been called a “powerhouse,” the playwright — who after years on the West Coast now lives with his family in Newtown, Pennsylvania — recently shared some thoughts about the revisions, the creation of the work, and the art of writing.
“I was never satisfied,” says Mastrosimone during a two-hour discussion. “There was always something wrong. Some of it didn’t ring true. There were a couple of good moments, and it hung together. When I picked up the draft again — and this is the third draft — something just jumped out at me, and I was exposed as an amateur writer,” he says holding himself to high standards: an attempt to nail stage illusion to reality, tale to truth.
As the 66-year-old playwright talks the connections become clear: “In the next draft Hector escapes from the Trenton detention center. My father had a liquor store at Parkside Avenue. There was a detention center with a barbed wire fence. That got etched in my memory. And the kids used to call out and say, ‘Could you get me some beer?’ That gave me a big chunk of the play.”
Mastrosimone — who lived near the Brunswick Circle area of Trenton, where his father also had a bowling alley — says that at the end of the original production Ty discovers that Hector is actually a perpetrator of a violent crime, yet he decides to tell his wife that the boy is innocent. It didn’t work, the writer says. “It shows that it’s a bad relationship. There was no hint of (Ty lying to his wife). I’m married now and know that (the depicted relationship) is really wrong.”
The writer explains his solution: “At the end of the new version, Hector tells Ty that he committed the crime. And Ty asks to be with his wife. Ty says that the kid did it. And Georgiane says we need to call the cops. Ty says, ‘It would be the right thing to do and the cops come handcuff him, take him out, and he would do a little time. But I think we can have an influence on him and not call the cops.’ Georgiane has her doubts and goes along with it. She’s very conservative, and everything is right and wrong. She’s from the projects and worked her way up. No one has ever given her anything. She’s worked her way up. Now she and Ty put everything they have on the line at the end of act one. That’s what I want. Now they both risk their necks.” The dialogue in the sidebar provides a glimpse of the approach.
“Tamer of Horses” was born of a relationship with the producers of Crossroads Theater, Lee K. Richardson and Ricardo Khan, who attended Mason Gross School of the Arts together. “They said that they would like to do a play by me. There was no specification. I said to Lee I have this idea of a play called “Tamer of Horses” and told them about Hector. I said you know that I would like to comb all the acting schools and find a young black Al Pacino — I’ll write the script around his personal traits.”
The duo — who founded the Tony Award-winning black theater company — came back and said that while they did not find a black actor, they found a young white one who was “street and menacing.”
“I knew it was the right move, and I said, ‘Lee, it’s about a black couple who take in a white kid. You couldn’t do a play about a white couple taking in black child; there would be complaints,” says Mastrosimone.
The result was one of the biggest hits at Crossroads up to that time. “Since their audiences were black and white, the discussion was the best that they had had. People said that it was beyond black and white.”
Mastrosimone has always maintained that the play is about human beings. “There is not one line in the play that says they’re black. I always insisted that they’re a black couple. In the play there’s no covert racial tension. That’s not what the play is about.”
What it is about is something going on in our culture. “(United States senator) Patrick Moynihan once said in the 1970s that in the year 2000 our impoverished young people will rise up and punish us up for neglect,” the playwright says, citing the Harvard professor who served as a cabinet or sub-cabinet member of the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations and authored the study, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (aka “The Moynihan Report”).
“I thought that was a very important statement. I think there is something pernicious that is destroying (young people’s) minds. Civilization is at stake,” he says.
The play provides some clues as to what tools can be helpful in the battle for minds and souls. One, Mastrosimone believes, is in “the power of literature to change lives, the great literature that people don’t read anymore. That literature changes people’s lives.”
And the play has literary layers. The title of the play refers to Hector, a major figure in the ancient Greek epic “The Iliad” who is given the appellation “tamer of horses,” a metaphor for controlling the wild and powerful forces within himself.
“When Ty tells (Hector) your name is not Hispanic. It’s really Greek, that there was a great hero named Hector, and tells him a little of the story. By virtue of having the same name of Hector of Troy, the character identifies with that. He learns that he was a great hero that put fears in his enemies. But then he hears that Hector was a good husband, a good father, and a good citizen. For the first time in (stage character) Hector’s life, he identifies with a good person. He’s not even aware of it, he identifies with the name. This experience makes Ty go back to teaching. Ty’s idealism of facing open minds — this is one of the most meaningful moments in his life.”
Mastrosimone returns to the rewriting of a play and says that current factors — such as a black president — have nothing to do with any of the changes. “Modern times have no influence on the play. It’s living in a bubble. I just went into that bubble,” he says.
What has changed is his art. “I’m a better writer now than I have ever been in my life. I know what to do now. I wasn’t honest with myself, forced things, and thought I could go on from there.”
He explains his development and self-judges his past accomplishments. “I used to be an automatic writer. As opposed to a person who studied theory and structure. Sometimes your automatic mechanism doesn’t work. I needed a Stanislavski (method) style of writing. I set out for the answers. I interviewed other writers and actors and directors about the process of creation.”
The information is the stuff of a book that he is writing — one that provides tips for others but also reveals his process. “I am not drawn by theme. I’m drawn by character — what predicament they’re in. Character is all. If you are true to the character, the character will write the story for you. Stories are events that are done by characters, and characters are driven by needs. The first chore is to find what the characters need and what drives them. It’s not always a simple answer,” he says.
Instead of writing the story first, he continues, “I turn the character over and over in my head. What I’m looking for is truth, not wit. The single most important thing to know is predictability. Before you write your character, you have to have the same predictability of what you have for your parents. You knew when to shut up and when to talk. Ask for the car keys or not. Your character has to have a consistency. That’s what I look for in a character.”
As a writer for stage (“Extremities,” “Afghan Women,” “Bang Bang You’re Dead”), screen (“The Beast,” “With Honors,” and “Extremities”), and television (the ABC mini-series on Frank Sinatra, “Into the West” for Stephen Spielberg, and “Benedict Arnold”), he talks authoritatively on the differences. “I see a screenplay, but I hear a play. It’s a different set of tools. A screenplay is basically a visual experience. The dialogue supports the visual. But a play is an auditory experience. It is the words that create character. You can shoot that full of holes, but for me that’s how it starts. What both have in common are characters. Films are about characters that things happen to. Plays are where characters do things.”
His latest stage work is “Ride the Tiger,” which was produced in spring, 2013, at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, received positive reviews, and is in development for a Broadway production. Also in development is his teleplay “The Man on the Rock,” a mini-series on Napoleon Bonaparte.
Saying that he spends four or five hours in the morning writing, he devotes the rest of the time to his wife, portrait photographer Sharon Mastrosimone, and daughters: Penn State student Zamzama; Seattle Pacific University-bound Billie; and Council Rock High School North student Vanessa. All plan to study some aspect of the medical field.
“I feared that they would be interested in theater,” the theater-artist father says. “They have taken some acting and improv. They have seen how hard it is and made a conscious decision not to go into the theater. And I am all for it.”
But for him, it’s different. “I love theater more than I ever loved theater. I see theater as an important part of our society because I think it’s the freest of all the arts. We don’t have an editor; we don’t have anyone telling us what to write.”
There is a troubling sign. “People align themselves to political entities. But they start preaching to the choir. I think when you go into the theater you should be prepared to get your ass kicked. I don’t want theater to provide a comfort zone. Write honestly and let the ideas fall where they may.”
Tamer of Horses, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Previews Thursday and Friday, May 15 and 16, opens, Saturday, May 17, and continues through Sunday, June 8. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays 3 p.m. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.
The Passage production features Lynnette R. Freeman (Georgiane), whose credits include productions at the Ensemble Studio Theater and La Mama Theater in New York City, Arkansas Rep, and Trinity Repertory Company Regional; Edward O’Blenis (Ty), Crossroads Theater, Delaware Theater Company, People’s Light and Theater, Yale Repertory Theater, and Actors Theater of Louisville; and Reynaldo Piniella (Hector), Actors Theater of Louisville, Urban Stages, National Black Theater, New Federal Theater in New York City, and workshops and readings at McCarter Theater. McCarter associate director Adam Immerwahr directs.
The Playwright at Work
William Mastrosimone revisited the ending moments of the first act of “Tamer of Horses” to make the characters more truthful and human. The changes also awaken a deeper emotional connection with the audience, as the following example shows.
From the original script when Hector has just admitted his criminality to Ty who resolves to help, but he hides the truth from his wife when she enters the scene.
Ty: He said he didn’t do it…I believe him.
Pause. Georgiane nods. Beat. Exit Georgiane.
Ty looks at Hector. Hector looks away. Lights fade.
From the revision when Ty has just told his wife about Hector’s crime and his decision to help the young man. While supporting Ty’s plan, she shares several concerns and Ty responds.
Ty: I’ll give it more thought. And I won’t let Hector be a distraction from thinking about it. If you don’t want him here, just say so, Georgiane, and it’s over and done.
They embrace. As lights fade, Hector appears in the doorway unbeknownst to them watching them. Lights out.