Get Carter?

If not, maybe you’re not alone: his admirers seem awfully reluctant to produce his plays.

By Mara Tapp

Earlier this week Victory Gardens Theater collected a Tony Award for best regional theater, joining Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre as the only companies in Chicago so honored. Victory Gardens has always focused on the playwright as the central creative figure, nurturing a dozen distinctive voices in its 14-year-old Playwrights Ensemble. The most distinctive of them all may be Lonnie Carter, a native of Jefferson Park who’s been part of the ensemble since its inception and has written 30 full-length plays. But at 58, Carter has the dubious distinction of being a cult figure: though he’s widely respected by critics, directors, and actors, only four of his plays have ever been staged in Chicago.

“Lonnie Carter’s one of the best-known, least-produced playwrights in the country,” says Dennis Zacek, artistic director at Victory Gardens. “I would like to get him a bigger audience, and I don’t know how to achieve that.” It’s not for lack of trying–Zacek directed the Victory Gardens productions of Carter’s Lemuel (1996) and Necktie Party (1987) and all four stagings of The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy (1985). That play took 13 years to get from the company’s studio to its main stage, where it opened the 25th-anniversary season–and lost money.

Carter’s plays are unusual and highly complex. The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy is a street-smart update of the Book of Daniel that draws on everything from Shakespeare to Motown to Amos ‘n’ Andy. “It’s just such extraordinary writing,” says Zacek. “People get nervous watching and listening to Carter’s work because there’s more demanded of the ear than people are used to.”

The Angel’s Prologue, which opens the play, gives a good example of Carter’s dense, allusive style: “Welcome to the Sovereign State / Karma Kismet and Fate / Of Boogedy Boogedy Boo / Your cousins bros sisters and you // I’m your Angel cherubic / My soul’s so big it’s measured in cubic / In the Sovereign State we take the scat out of scat-o-logy / We don’t psych you / We like you // No psychology / You got it–Like-o-logy / We want you to have the Final Causes / Instead of death judgment heaven hell without pauses / We hope to give you pleasure supreme // We entertain you like you the Emperor of Ice Cream / But one note of warning / Lest there’s perjury suborning / We seek the hole in the whole doughnut Truth.”

Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times has called Carter “a wizard with black speech and verbal music of all sorts, drawing on the jazz riff and the Baptist sermon, as well as funk and rap” in a way that “lift[s] storytelling to a new plane.” Playwrights like Carter and Heather Woodbury, whose What Ever: An American Odyssey in 8 Acts was a hit at the Steppenwolf Studio, “show us how to erase the flattening euphemisms of corporate jargon and the deadening dreariness of techno-speak, and how to push the cliches of grunge and rap into something larger. They tweak the language, prod it, ennoble it, satirize it, glorify it. And in so doing, they earn a place alongside all its radically different innovators, from Samuel Beckett to Muhammad Ali.”

Unfortunately, reinventing the language isn’t a high priority for most

theatergoers. Lisa Tejero and E.

Milton Wheeler, who appeared in the 1998 production of The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy, met the challenge of Carter’s prose with extensive research, but, as Tejero recalls, the second act found a much-increased number of red-velvet seats staring back at them.

Carter saw his first play at age 19, when he was a student at Marquette University, and by the time he earned his BA in 1964 he’d made up his mind that he wanted to write for the stage. Two years later he completed a graduate degree in drama, and in 1969 he earned an MFA in playwriting and dramatic literature from Yale School of Drama. Since the 80s he’s been on the faculty at New York University, though he’s also taught at Columbia University and George Washington University. He lives in Connecticut, and for the past two years he’s been a member of New Dramatists, the New York playwriting workshop that also walked off with a Tony this week, for excellence in theater.

On Monday, New Dramatists will give a reading of what Carter calls his “Colonial HippeHoppe/Rappe” about Phyllis Wheatley, who lived in Boston during the Revolutionary War and was the first African-American ever published. Wheatley started as a ten-minute sketch written for black history month at the suggestion of Carter’s friend Andre De Shields, the New York actor who’s appeared in several Goodman productions and who’s now enjoying Broadway success in The Full Monty. The sketch was staged at Manhattan’s La Mama theater in February 2000.

“I don’t know of any white playwright who writes as much for black actors or people of color as Lonnie does,” says Zacek. “There’s been tremendous confusion for years as to whether he’s a black man or a white man.” That anomaly only adds to Carter’s reputation as a literary curiosity. Why would a man of Slovakian and Hungarian descent be so fascinated by the African-American experience? “I’ve been asked this question a lot over the last 20 years,” Carter replies, “and I never know quite how to respond. But I look around me and I see African-American influences in everything, in music, in art, and so on, and how could I be a responsible writer if I didn’t write about that?”

Later, in an E-mail, the playwright recalls the time a white, “pointy-headed” critic for the Village Voice took him to task for his play Gulliver, the first in a series of four that tell the Swiftian story of a young man from Chicago’s south side who goes overseas with the Peace Corps: “Gulliver ends with a great big King-cum-Jackson speech delivered with brilliance by Andre Dr Dre De Shields. A black woman in the audience was vocal in her response to his call.” The critic misinterpreted her amen-corner response as disgust, though when Carter spoke to the woman, a playwright with whom he was acquainted, she was horrified that her reaction had been misread. Carter writes, “Whites have often asked me, upon seeing The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy, about my ‘whiteness’ and howcouldIwriteblahblahblah, while blacks want to talk about the Bible.”

Curt Columbus, an artistic associate at Steppenwolf, says, “I love Lonnie’s work, and he’s on my list of people whose plays I want to direct.” But he thinks the literacy of Carter’s work is further complicated by the fact that he’s “a white intellectual writing plays on African-American subjects that are neither directed at the white intellectual or African-American intellectual audiences. In fact they’re tone poems/jazz riffs that are best directed at twentysomethings or at Gen-Xers. The reason that it appeals to the Gen X audiences is that it’s nonlinear, and their tolerance for that is lots higher than those of us in the baby boomer generation.”

“I have a hunch that he can really speak to young people,” says Zacek. “Because young people, of course, can deal with a lot of stimuli at one time. I do know that when people came to see Sovereign State there were a lot of different responses. There were some people who found it overwhelming, and by and large they tended to be rather mature. And in contrast to that we had young students–teenagers and students in their early college years–who had absolutely no trouble following the piece.”

Carter says he’s “anything but a youth monger,” yet “there are young people in Chicago and New York–20s and 30s–who really dig my work and want to do it.” That hasn’t helped him much, “because the people who, with few exceptions, really want to do the work are not in the position to do it.”

Zacek is currently discussing a production of Baby Glo, the latest installment in the Gulliver saga, with Nic Dimond, a young director who has worked at Strawdog Theatre Company but is now based in Phoenix. After giving a reading of Wheatley in November, Victory Gardens is pursuing a grant to develop it in workshop, and during a recent lunch meeting Carter tried to convince Zacek to stage another of his plays on the main stage. But even a die-hard fan like Zacek is careful with his promises: “I will definitely do a Lonnie Carter production in the near future. I don’t know what stage it will be on, but we’ll definitely do something.”

Carter has high hopes for his latest play, China Calls. It’s a piece of “autobiographical fiction” about his 1998 and 1999 trips to China, where he was trying to gain custody of his two small children from their mother.

New Dramatists gave the play a reading last year with David Strathairn, and Carter characterizes the response as excellent. “People who had seen my work, known me for a long time, said, ‘This is the piece that is going to be the breakthrough for you. You’ve always been thought of as a political writer, but this is more’–God forbid I should say it, but–‘more accessible, more personal.'”

Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf, was among those taken with the play, but she was less impressed when Carter followed it with ten pages from Wheatley. The company’s manager wrote him back that “unless an ensemble member really seizes upon the work, this doesn’t seem likely.”

The response rubbed Carter the wrong way. “That is a euphemism for ‘We ain’t got no black women,’ to which I say, ‘Get one.'”

Advised of Carter’s remark, Lavey sighs, “Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie….Lonnie Carter strikes me as the sort of artist who is very fortunate to have an artistic home because his work is difficult.”

But Carter’s heard that one before. “I would say the only difficult theater is boring theater,” he replies, “and I haven’t yet been accused of that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Martha Porter/Jennifer Girard.