In a darkened room, four overhead projectors snap on. A picture of a street in Bronzeville slides onto a movie screen. Behind one of the projectors, Jyreika Guest and Eunice Woods drop two paper cutouts onto the glass surface and move them back and forth. Onscreen, the silhouettes of two well-to-do white women circa 1950 stroll down the street. “Is this it?” they coo. “Is this where the Negro poetess lives?”
N. LaQuis Harkins steps in front of the projectors. On the screen, her shadow turns into a woman opening the door to one of the houses. “I am Gwendolyn Brooks,” she says.
Over the next hour, with the help of hundreds of transparencies, 500 puppets, several hundred sound cues, five actors, and a five-piece band, the story of Brooks’s life will unfold entirely in light and shadow. The production, No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, is the work of Manual Cinema, a collective that produces live-action films that actors, puppeteers, and musicians perform onstage in real time.
The creation of No Blue Memories began a year and a half ago, when Ydalmi Noriega and Elizabeth Burke-Dain—the Poetry Foundation’s directors of community relations and marketing and media, respectively—saw a performance of My Soul’s Shadow, a Manual Cinema production based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. They were blown away, Burke-Dain recalls now, and decided that a collaboration with Manual Cinema would be a perfect finale to the yearlong celebration of Brooks’s centennial.
“As soon as the words ‘Gwendolyn Brooks’ were spoken, we knew we must have Eve,” says Sarah Fornace, one of Manual Cinema’s five coartistic directors and the director of No Blue Memories. “Eve” is Eve Ewing, the poet and sociologist who was, as it happens, a University of Chicago classmate of Fornace and Drew Dir, another of the coartistic directors. Ewing agreed to write the script as long as she could collaborate with her friend and fellow poet Nate Marshall, and the pair recruited another friend, singer and songwriter Jamila Woods, to compose and perform the musical score with her sister Ayanna.
The narrative unfolds in three acts. The first tells the story of Brooks’s beginnings as a poet (her first poem, composed in 1924 when she was seven years old: “A crayon is small, / but what it lacks / in size, it makes up for / in WAX”), how she learned to capture her Bronzeville neighbors in her work, and how she became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. “Art urges voyages,” she read at the unveiling of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza in 1967, “and it is easier to stay at home.” The second act chronicles how she left home: her radicalization in the late 1960s, after she attends a writing conference at Fisk University and discovers the Black Arts movement. “I was a Negro poet no more,” she declares. “I dwell in blackness.” The final third shows her generosity as a teacher and a poet—how, even after she became famous, she routinely visited elementary schools and answered letters from prison inmates.
The Manual Cinema team took Ewing and Marshall’s script and storyboarded it into cinema-style shots. Most of Manual Cinema’s work tells stories solely through visuals and sound, like silent movies; No Blue Memories will be one of only a few of its production to incorporate spoken dialogue. “It’s a weird hybrid process,” says Ben Kauffman, a coartistic director and the show’s sound designer. “We borrowed techniques from animation and film, but ultimately it’s a theater show. Everything we do that is filmlike needs to be translated into a live show.” Throughout the production, the audience will be able to see the puppeteers and actors at work as well as the finished product up on the screen.
A Manual Cinema show is intended to be an immersive experience. Kauffman and his team have been working on assembling the hundreds of sound cues to create the backdrop of the settings and scenes; these will be deployed during the performance through a quadraphonic sound system. The light team, meanwhile, is planning how to depict what Fornace calls “poetry magic.” Poetry magic, she explains, is sparkly.
The magic of No Blue Memories is all in the service of capturing Brooks’s spirit. “Looking carefully at the world for small truths and big ones and erasing lines in between: this is the business of being a poet,” Brooks says at one point in No Blue Memories. “Some people think being a poet is about something else. They want you to be small because they feel small.” Gwendolyn Brooks was a giant. v