How many times have we heard, “either become active or quit complaining” in reference to a wide range of things, from family dynamics to national politics?
Back in 1969, actress/director/ playwright Seret Scott dropped out of her classes in the theater department at New York University to take action. She remembers watching the civil rights movement unfold on the evening news. Spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Scott went south with the Free Southern Theater to do her part to help African-Americans in their struggle for freedom and justice. “I found it difficult to reconcile what I was doing in the theater department at NYU with what was going on in the world,” says Scott.
With the acting troupe, Scott toured for a year through small communities throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. They set up a makeshift stage and performed scripted plays as well as improvisational work, all relating to the events that were going on all around them. “Everywhere there were marches and sit-ins,” says Scott. “We told the stories dramatically to help the people understand what was happening. They were part of it but often didn’t always understand what they were doing or what was going on.” This was the first time these itinerant farmers, migrant workers, and day laborers had ever seen a play. Says Scott: “At the end of the play, they would wait for it to start again. In the middle, someone might come on stage to look at a prop that interested them.” One of the troupe’s major goals was to improve voter registration among the black population.
Scott’s play, “Second Line,” will have its world premiere at Passage Theater in Trenton on Thursday, October 5. The work is partially autobiographical, growing from Scott’s own attempts at making a difference. In the play, two African-American college students meet on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, which Scott identifies as a time in black history when things were changing. “The best and the brightest black young people were given scholarships and admitted to largely white colleges and universities, where they faced a great deal of loneliness. In the play, the two characters try to find out who they are in relation to the world they have been dropped into.”
The two realize that they each have different ideas about what is best to do. The young woman goes off to be part of freedom marches while the young man decides to stay in school and work to change the discriminatory system from within the corporate power base. Scott explains that the man’s point of view is that people are marching, singing, and protesting to achieve the educational opportunities that have already been given to the two of them. “His voice is an activist voice as well. His work just isn’t so visible,” says Scott.
She expresses some regret over things that have happened in this country since the times of civil rights protest. “The marches accomplished what they needed to accomplish in an extraordinary and historic way for the whole country. But the generation and half since then, well, I think we have dropped the ball. In a way so much was gained back then and so much of this has been lost. We haven’t passed on the legacy, the understanding of those historic events. Did we forget? Are there too many other things to worry about? Who said, ‘If we don’t remember our history, will we have to repeat it’?’” Scott hopes that the message of her play will in some way remind us of this legacy.
In the second act of the play, it is 1983, and the couple’s story continues against the backdrop of protests against the Vietnam War. Again, Scott is drawing on personal material. Her mother went to Vietnam in 1973 as a social worker. “She was evacuated at the fall of Saigon,” says Scott. The woman in the play also goes to Vietnam as a social worker trying to ensure the health and safety of the Vietnamese children orphaned by the war.
Scott’s career in the theater has built naturally for her, from actress to director to playwright. A highlight of her acting career was her performance in “My Sister My Sister” on Broadway in 1974, for which she was honored by the Drama Desk award for “Outstanding Performance.” She began directing when actor friends needed a director and had no money to hire one. One job led to another and suddenly she found her name on the list for major directing jobs in regional theaters all over the country. She served as artistic associate at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, when Arvin Brown was the artistic director, and is currently an associate artist at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
Her playwriting career moves out of her closet with this first major production of one of her scripts. “Actually, the earliest interest of mine was writing. I just never thought about it as something that would be of interest to anyone else. I was doing it because I loved doing it.” Again in response to requests from actor friends, one of her scripts would be pulled from the stack for a reading. At first the script for “Second Line” was begun as a possible vehicle for herself. All she would need was another actor, and they could tour with it. Ironically, now that the play is being produced, she says, “The funny part is that the play took so long to develop that I’ve outgrown the age of the character.”
Over the years Scott has performed and directed at numerous new play development centers, including the Sundance Festival, the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and South Coast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Festival. (She acted in early readings of the Pulitzer and Tony winner “Angels in America.”)
She credits the combined support of Passage Theater and McCarter Theater for getting this play ready for production. When she read about the upcoming season at Passage (she thinks it was summer of 2003), she sent her script to the attention of Passage artistic director June Ballinger. Several months passed before she heard back and was asked to do a reading of the script, where she played the part of the woman and a friend read the role of the man. “It was early March and there was eight feet of snow on the ground,” says Scott, and she remembers that there were only five people in the audience. But it was a beginning.
Several more readings at Passage, and then the opportunity to participate in a summer playwriting retreat sponsored by McCarter moved her development process along. (That retreat also supported new works by Christopher Durang, Nilo Cruz, and Beth Henley, among others.) “It was quite a heady affair for me to be in that group,” Scott says. She also found access to the Princeton library invaluable. “And I was able to get over a huge bump in the development of my play.” By “bump” she explains that it was in Princeton that she decided to focus on the two people with the backdrop of what was happening historically, rather than the other way around.
The additional readings at Passage helped her shape her script further. “June (Ballinger) has been an absolute doll through this whole process, seeing the work with an eye for the overview while I was focusing on the details,” Scott says.
Scott grew up in Washington, D.C. She has one sister, now retired from teaching at the University of California and later at Hampton University in Virginia. Her father is deceased, but her mother still lives in the D.C. area. Scott now lives in Teaneck with her husband, who works in the tax department of Cingular. Their son, Anang, 28, is a counselor and physical education teacher for at-risk youth in a Bronx high school.
One of the downsides of directing in so many places nationwide, Scott says, is that it meant less time at home. She remembers that Anang went with her to Sundance, where one of the playwrights, Russell Davis, taught him how to juggle.
Ballinger weighs in on Scott by saying, “She is so well-known as a director but is just coming into her own as a playwright. Her writing offers a unique perspective about what it was like to be part of the emerging Black middle class in the 1960s and the sacrifices that were made to support the Civil Rights movement. I found the love story between the two students at the heart of the play to be a moving story of idealism and commitment.”
Second Line, Thursday, October 8, through Sunday, October 29, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. World premiere of drama spanning 20 years of social change follows two middle class African-American college students of the 1960s. Written by Seret Scott and directed by Eric Ruffin. $25. 609-392-0766.