by FRANK GAGLIANO
These are the two plays and one musical that comprise my VOODOO TRILOGY:
IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU,
THE COMMEDIA WORLD OF LAFCADIO B
and the musical CONGO SQUARE.
IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU came first. Doing some research on the city and history of New Orleans for another project, I discovered the extraordinary life of the legendary voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. I also discovered that New Orleans, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century, was a true American melting pot of cultures and a bastion of European French Opera, Voodoo and Catholicism. I took that mix and developed what I called “a voodoo chamber opera.” My penchant as a playwright has always been to explore the full range of theatrical elements in my plays and especially to compose a special theatrical language that soars: MARIE LAVEAU was the perfect subject for that exploration (affording me great opportunities to invent spoken arias, backed by voodoo drums). I first developed IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center (I was one of the O’Neill Theatre Center’s founding playwrights). LAVEAU was immediately picked up by the Phoenix Theatre Sideshow series in New York City and directed by Michael Montel. Over the decades, IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU has had an Equity Waiver production in Hollywood, an Off-Off Broadway showcase, many sit-down and staged readings–and, through each permutation, I’ve tweaked, expanded and honed the language and filled out what I call, the “dramatic pressures” pushing the drama. The screenwriter Cristina Beato Peters has just completed a hair-raising screenplay of LAVEAU and it is in the hands of (and being considered by) a major director. IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU, I firmly believe, is now polished and finished and is ready for its major production.
Many years ago, I gave permission to a Carnegie Mellon University Graduate Directing student to direct a thesis production of LAVEAU. Other than that Pittsburgh production, this PPTCO professional production will be a Pittsburgh premiere.
CONGO SQUARE was the next New Orleans piece I began. The New Orleans research had uncovered stories of Black culture and larger-than-life Black heroes that inflamed my imagination. Again — the inherent theatricality in the whole New Orleans’ milieu was too tantalizing not to explore. I am also a lyricist and started to conceive of CONGO SQUARE as a stage musical.
At that point I received a call from Broadway composer Claibe Richardson (he had composed the score for the Broadway musical, The Grass Harp), who had heard of IN THE VOODOO PARLOUR OF MARIE LAVEAU and was looking for a book writer and lyricist to work on a Laveau musical for the singer-actress Eartha Kitt. I suggested he take a peek at what I had already written of CONGO SQUARE. Claibe got excited and we began to collaborate. Director J Ranelli then invited me to present CONGO SQUARE in a series of productions he was planning at the University of Rhode Island with professional guest artists joining the student actors. Claibe got musical director Bruce Pomahac (now with the Rogers and Hammerstein organization) to work with us on what was essentially then a play with lots of music. After the success at URI, Claibe and I began working in depth on the full-fledged musical version of CONGO SQUARE.
Besides being a piece that would allow me to explore my lyricist capabilities, I was also dealing with one of my favorite subjects — an innocent character facing a world of corruption. Willy Beau Squire, a young Black man, faces a corrupt 1970s New Orleans and his own corrupt father and the corruption in himself. Being a musical, it is also a love story–of sorts–and a tour-de-force for the young singer-actor-dancer playing Willy Beau: He sings 80% of the score.
When I was the Artistic Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Showcase of New Plays, I presented the newest version of CONGO SQUARE for three script-in-hand performances (directed by Daisy Prince, Hal Prince’s daughter). As a result of that reading, Claibe and I got back to work again on the show. Soon after putting the finishing touches on CONGO SQUARE, Claibe died. CONGO SQUARE made the final cut of five musicals in the CARDIFF INTERNATIONAL MUSICAL FESTIVAL some years back. The PPTCO production will be a world premiere production and a tribute to the late Claibe Richardson.
THE COMMEDIA WORLD OF LAFCADIO B was also developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. At the time I was re-visiting a great deal of the theatre of the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello (“Six Characters In Search of an Author”) and with the films of the great Italian film maker Federico Fellini–and with anything to do with The Commedia Del Arte, the great Italian improvisational theatre that has influenced so much comedy right through to sitcoms and to Bugs Bunny. LAFCADIO is a kind of Pirandellian/Fellini-esque romp with a touch of Commedia dazzle. The piece has had numerous readings over the years and one showcase at The Phoenix Theatre Sideshow Series in New York (double bill with MARIE LAVEAU). A farce, THE COMMEDIA WORLD OF LAFCADIO B takes place in corrupt New Orleans in 1917 and deals with a charismatic con man, Lafcadio B (for Beauregard). There are some people in life who always seem to “get away with it;” to have found the “getting away with it” rhythm–and to prosper. Since, like most people, I rarely get away with anything, I decided to fantasize and develop a character–Lafcadio B–who does get away with it–(or does he?).
Each play takes place in what was once the voodoo parlour of Marie Laveau. Each is a play about corruption. Each play has innocent characters confronting varieties of that corruption. Each play is a language and theatrical dazzler. Each play is designed to stretch actors and designers. Each play will be a Pittsburgh Premiere production.
For this playwright, who has made Pittsburgh his home for the last 25 years, PPTCO is the perfect Pittsburgh venue for these pieces. When I returned from China in 2007 (teaching playwriting to Chinese students at Peking University and having my play BIG SUR performed by the Beijing Institute of World Theatre and Film), Mark Southers presented a major scene from CONGO SQUARE (directed by Marci Woodruff) and he got excited about the piece.
Cut to 2009: Mark called me one night at my office at West Virginia U and asked if I would be interested in his producing the entire VOODOO TRILOGY at PPTCO in the 2011 season (In 2009 I was then in my last year at WVU as Benedum Professor of Playwriting at West Virginia U — I recently retired). Give a playwright a producer who has the cajones to produce not one– but three of his plays in one season –and that playwright is a happy camper, indeed. And to work again with Marci Woodruff (Congo) and, for the first time, with director Kim El (Laveau), is also an exciting prospect. And the Pittsburgh actors–just beginning rehearsals (as of this writing)–are professional, talented and excited about being in the plays.
One thing concerning Mark Southers is very clear to me: Besides being a producing/Artistic Director, Mark is a playwright and he knows that, for a playwright, it is all about the work. Whatever is needed to support that work, Mark, with limited resources, will try to make happen. With PPTCO, the VOODOO TRILOGY will be in good hands. And I fully expect for THE VOODOO TRILOGY to have legs.
Pittsburgh, 11 January, 2011
All my plays and songs from my musicals can be found on my Web site.