Words First: Talking Text in Opera

Richard Wesley

July 20, 2020 Keturah Stickann Season 1 Episode 4
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Richard Wesley
Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Richard Wesley
Jul 20, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
Keturah Stickann

Keturah talks with playwright and librettist Richard Wesley.  They discuss his work with Trilogy: An Opera Company, collaborating with composer, Anthony Davis, on the Pulitzer Prize winning opera, The Central Park Five, how the works of black writers fit into the greater theatrical canon, and how he has faith in and hope for today’s youth in continuing the fight for social justice.

Show Notes Transcript

Keturah talks with playwright and librettist Richard Wesley.  They discuss his work with Trilogy: An Opera Company, collaborating with composer, Anthony Davis, on the Pulitzer Prize winning opera, The Central Park Five, how the works of black writers fit into the greater theatrical canon, and how he has faith in and hope for today’s youth in continuing the fight for social justice.

00:01 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 00:17

This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera.  I’m Keturah Stickann.


00:23 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 00:50

Richard Wesley has seen a lot in his life.  He was a playwriting student at Howard University in the mid 60’s, an award-winning playwright in New York in the early 1970’s, and a screenplay writer for Sidney Poitier, in the late ‘70’s.  Now, as an associate professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he’s still writing plays, but has found his way into opera, writing a number of libretti for Trilogy: An Opera Company in Newark, New Jersey.  One, The Central Park Five, composed by Anthony Davis, went to Long Beach Opera last year, and took this year’s Pulitzer for music.  He’s also veered into memoir writing with his new autobiography, It’s Always Loud in the Balcony: A Life in Black Theater from Harlem to Hollywood and Back.  When I started reading this terrific book, I knew I wanted to talk to him about everything he’s seen, and what it’s like to pivot into opera after an already full career.  Last week, I had an opportunity to interview Richard, and we had an amazing conversation.  We talked about life now, life then, and the joys of discovering new means of expression late in one’s career.  Take a listen:  So, I want to…in your memoir, you refer to yourself several times as a dramatist, and indicate this means that you could work in whatever medium best serves your current ideas.  I assumed that you meant this to be theater, film, or television, but because this is a podcast about librettists, I actually wanted to start our conversation at the very end of your book.  So on the last page, you mention that you’ve begun writing librettos for writing, which is, to quote you, “forcing me to think in new dimensions of creativity.” So, did you ever think that you would include writing libretti as part of being a dramatist, and how do you find the medium of opera to be serving your current ideas?


Richard 02:39

I did not think that this was going to be a new field for me.  I had no idea…ten years ago, if you had mentioned it to me, I would be like, “Oh wait, I’m so happy you think that of me,” but it would not have been something that I would have considered.


Keturah 03:02



Richard 03:03

And new dimensions?  Yes!  I’m excited about it.  I find myself thinking in that arena more…more so, you know, especially with new story ideas that I have.  It’s a new territory, working with composers.  Every composer has told me, don’t worry about the music.  Don’t think about the music at all, just write, you know, write as though you were writing a play, and let us worry about how we’re going to musicalize.


Keturah 03:40

Is that easier said than done?


Richard 03:42

Much easier said that done.  Much easier said than done, because as a writer you’re constantly thinking about, am I constructing dialogue that is impossible to imagine as music?  On the stage, the dialogue conveys almost all of the information that an audience is going to need.  So, you can expand your dialogue a little bit.  But, there you don’t want to overburden your actor with too many lines to memorize, and you don’t want to over explain something.  So, I bring that same kind of feeling and eagerness to accommodate, you know, the composer, that I do to the actor.  So, I’m looking for lines or words, rather, in my dialogue that lend themselves to the composer’s imagination in terms of how he or she might want to musicalize that line of dialogue.  It’s sort of like, in Central Park Five, which I know we’re going to discuss a little bit later on…


Keturah 05:12

Yes, we will.  Yes.


Richard 05:15

In Central Park Five, I had a line, “We are the freaks, and we own the night.” Okay?  And it was taken from something, when I originally started writing it… “People see us as freaks, and maybe we are…” And I started to explain that whole thing, you know, expand the line…and I said, “Well no, wait a minute.”  What if I kept it short, or made it shorter, choppier, and more percussive.  Does that, then, help Anthony in terms of how he wants to approach it, you know, musically?  And sure enough, when Anthony started to create the composition, he took the same line and shortened it even more.


Keturah 06:21

Oh yeah.  [Laughter]


Richard 06:23

Because, he found places where he could, you know, heighten the emotion behind the line.  He could get into the subtext that I was going for, and that’s how we started working.


Keturah 06:45

Well, do you feel…you’ve used a phrase in your book talking about how you admire the economy of lines. 


Richard 06:53



Keturah 06:54

So, do you feel like that idea has helped you when you’re working with, essentially, a storytelling partner that you have in a composer.


Richard 07:03

Yes, for me, anyway, writing that way has always helped.  The economy of lines:  giving actors room to breathe in between the lines, in between the exchanges of dialogue.  Giving them a place to go creatively because every actor is going to create the character that they’re playing.  Yes, the interpretation of that character, I should say.  Every actor is going to have their own interpretation.  Part of my process is giving them room to interpret.  I don’t want to overwrite the part so there’s no place for them to go. And at the same time, you know, I do worry about underwriting it, but I’m not too afraid to err on that side because, again, if there’s not enough there, I find out about it in rehearsal.  Either the actor or director will tell me, or if neither one of them says anything, I’m sitting out here during rehearsal, and I’ll hear something and go, “Oh my god!...”


Keturah 08:20

Yeah, right.  Yeah.


Richard 08:22

You know, and I can come in and make an adjustment.  And so, I’m writing lines that come right up to a certain point, and I leave things for the actor to find.


Keturah 08:39

And it feels like the composer can take up some of that as well.


Richard 08:45

And same thing, you know, so the same thing applies to working with a composer, thank you.  Yeah.


Keturah 08:51

That’s great.  That’s a wonderful way to work.


Richard 08:56

Well, it certainly has worked…it’s worked for me for a couple of years now.


Keturah 09:01

Yeah.  So, you know, and I wanna…can you just give me a little history here?  So, after so many years of writing screenplays and plays, how was it that you actually got into writing opera?


Richard 09:14

I was at an event at the Newark, New Jersey public library, the main branch.  The one, by the way, my homeboy Philip Roth has made famous in his novels like Goodbye Columbus.


Keturah 09:31

Right!  Okay, yeah.


Richard 09:34

I was at an event there, and I met Kevin Maynor, who is the artistic director of Trilogy: An Opera Company, which is based in Newark.  And Kevin was the one who spoke to me.  He said, [imitating Kevin Maynor] “I would like you to write a libretto.”


Keturah 09:58

[Laughter] In that lovely deep voice he has.


Richard 10:00

In that lovely deep voice of his.  The material that he wanted..he wanted to do an opera about Jean-Paul Duvalier, who was a brutal dictator in Haiti from the late 1950’s until his death, I think, sometime during the ‘80’s.  He was known as Papa Doc…


Keturah 10:26



Richard 10:27

…and built a lot of his power on the mystery of voodoo.  And so I was given some material.  It was basically a series of essays that were written by a wonderful young Haitian-American writer named Edwidge Danticat, and her material was just incredible.  It was just incredible to read.  She’s such a wonderful writer.  But Kevin wanted me to create a play out of what was essentially non fiction reportage.


Keturah 11:15



Richard 11:16

This was a journalist’s material.  And, oh my goodness, you know, thanks a lot Kevin!


Keturah 11:24



Richard 11:25

[Laughter] You know… And, as it turned out, I did. I found a passage in her work that was moving and deeply involving, and I turned that into the opera.  So it was very interesting for the first time to see how what I wrote was reinterpreted again by someone else, and turned…and suddenly turned into this musical presentation.  It was just…wow, okay!  So, as soon as that happened, you know, my first reaction was, “What else can we do?”


Keturah 12:22



Richard 12:24

Then I wrote a libretto about Jomo Kenyatta, who was the first elected president of the newly independent nation of Kenya.  And then we followed that with…I think, after that, I think that was when the first version of Central Park Five


Keturah 12:50

Which was just called Five at the time, when you first did it, yeah?


Richard 12:53

At the time it was called Five.


Keturah 12:59

And I want to get back to that, but I just want to look at just the other two…then you had two other operas before we talk in depth about FiveBooker T. And W.E.B. That was one.  And also, Scott, Garner, Grey, Says Jimmy Baldwin,which was Dwayne Fulton’s piece that you wrote.


Richard 13:18

Oh, Dwayne Fulton, oh.  I cannot say enough about that young man.


Keturah 13:22



Richard 13:23

I really really would love to work with him again.  I thought the music that he created for that piece was just…it was so riveting and engaging, and that libretto is… It’s basically exclusively quotes from James Baldwin, from the writing of James Baldwin.


Keturah 13:56

Okay.  Wow.


Richard 13:58

So, what I had to do with that was go into his various essays, some of his television appearances, and listen to them and read them, and then put them in an order that kind of told a story, and also… Well, that story basically is what would James Baldwin say about the deaths of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.  That’s who Scott, Garner, and Gray are.


Keturah 14:41

Right, yeah.


Richard 14:45

And Dwayne just…he just….he took that material and he put just some incredible music along with it.


Keturah 14:58

Let’s talk a little bit more about Five, which was then expanded last year, and renamed The Central Park Five, and was produced by Long Beach Opera, and won the Pulitzer this year, which is spectacular!  So, that’s huge.  Can you talk to me just about the becoming of that piece and working with Anthony Davis on that?


Richard 15:21

Well, Anthony worked on it when it was Five.


Keturah 15:24



Richard 15:25

Anthony was the original composer.  And I knew going in that I would be working with him.  I started out with, again, with mostly material in the public domain.  I knew about the Ken Burns documentary, but I deliberately made a choice not to see it.  There were copyright issues and I didn’t want to get influenced by anything that might be in there, and then suddenly, well, okay.  So I didn’t…I didn’t watch that.  Instead I just concentrated on what I could find in magazines…sorry….in newspaper reports.


Keturah 16:11



Richard 16:12

And again creating a story there.  And I decided that I did not want to try to do it in any kind of biographical fashion.  I didn’t want to try to recreate the actual facts or setting or anything.  What I wanted to do was move into people’s imaginations, move into people’s feelings.  So I knew right off where I wanted to be was in some kind of abstraction.


Keturah 16:49

Right.  I remember actually listening to an interview with Kevin Maynor about this, and him saying that you had talked about it being real but…true but not real, or true but…it was arguing with those two ideas.


Richard 17:10

Yeah.  Yes.  I had a very narrow window to develop the libretto, get it to Anthony, and he would have a very narrow window to develop music.  I had the public domain material, I had my memories of how I felt when all of this was unfolding in real time.  I had information and memory of that period in the early 1990’s when so much of this unfolded, and I decided, let’s go with these feelings.  What does all of this mean to America?  How are we as a society dealing with this?  What are the abstractions that we’ve created in our own minds?  So the play itself becomes an abstraction, and it becomes this kind of nightmarish slash fantasy slash impressionistic world in which all of our assumptions, interpretations, feelings, ideas, and anger, and rage, and expectation…all of that can be thrown in there and mixed around.


Keturah 18:57



Richard 18:58

Society itself.  The way in which Harlem has been created in the public mind, or recreated in the public mind, and presented in the public mind through media, through literature, through anecdotal experiences both from outside and inside Harlem itself, became embodied in the character of The Mask.


Keturah 19:27

Right, yes.  I read about this.


Richard 19:29

A characterization that was also a very convenient instrument for me.  We’re working on a shoestring budget, we couldn’t have a huge cast.  So I created The Mask.  He could be a kind of society’s Everyman, and he could take on all kinds of different roles in, you know, in the piece itself.  Because The Mask also becomes this kind of oppressive system that so many people of color are continuously aware of, you know, how we function inside this system of American Society.  It’s governed by these rules, by these expectations, and also by the way, sometimes coldly impersonal, the way in which the system interacts with us.  So The Mask for me became this convenient character that I could create.  The Central Park Five, or Five in the original form.  The five boys became a collective personality.  I did not differentiate between them.  I imagined them the way people today remember The Scottsboro Boys, and certainly the way people remember the Central Park Five.  They’re not remembered individually as Kevin and Antron, and so on, they are remembered as five young men now.


Keturah 21:31



Richard 21:32

So in the original piece, that’s who they were.  They were five young men who became this collective image in the public mind, and the public is The Mask.  And you have these two entities, the five and the mask, seeing each other as these stereotypes, as these tropes, and they’re reacting to each other, you know, that way.  It gave me a certain kind of freedom, you know, writing that way, and I was able to make some social and political statements a lot more easily than if I’d had to really, you know, sort of try to recreate a reality the way Ava Duvernay did in When They See Us.


Keturah 22:23



Richard 22:24

You know, her very powerful piece on Netflix.  Well she had, you know, she had the advantage of being able to spread out over eight or nine episodes, and we feel..


Keturah 22:44

Right.  You have to pack a punch right off the…you have one go.


Richard 22:50

One go.  I have only two hours, and I have to do it on a very limited budget.  And once I musicalized…once the piece is musicalized, that also is going to bring certain lessons that I had to learn back into play.  You can’t write a two hour play and then have it musicalized, and expect it to become a two hour opera…


Keturah 23:35

No, it becomes a seven and half hour opera. [Laughter]


Richard 23:27

Thank you!  Thank you!  Absolutely!  You know?  So, I had to create, in effect, with each of those operas that I wrote at Trilogy, I had to write a one-act play that could tell a story.  And so, Central Park Five originally was a one-act play that literally covered thirteen years, you know?  And if it was performed as a play, it would have run for maybe 45 minutes.  Once it was musicalized, it turned into a two hour opera…two hour and fifteen minute opera.  And then months after we had done the production, and again, my head was someplace else, I get a telephone call from Anthony, [imitating Anthony Davis] “Richard!  I need your bio.  I need a headshot.”  You know, wha wha wha?  You know, “We may have a chance at a Pulitzer.”  [Laugher].  Uh, okay, I had no idea that…. You know the chairman of the drama department, the dramatic writing department where I teach at NYU, Terry Curtis Fox.  Terry’s emailing me, congratulating me.  I’m going, “For what?” And, you know, and yes, the opera won a Pulitzer.


Keturah 25:10

That’s fantastic.  Congratulations.  What a wonderful honor after so much work.  It’s such a long period of time you’ve been working on this piece, so…


Richard 25:20

Yeah, no, I wrote a…it’s a Pulitzer Prize for music so it’s a little bit more Anthony than it is me…


Keturah 25:29

Yeah, but your words are what inspired that music, so I think you should feel pretty proud of that as well.


Richard 25:36

Well, yeah.


Keturah 25:37

So, I actually want to change subjects.  There’s a question I want to ask you, I’m not quite sure how to word it.  I’ve written some stuff down, so.  But, just looking at your entire body of work and then reading your memoir, there’s this…the issue of what a black writer should be writing about comes up quite a bit in your memoir, so I think my first part of this question is do you feel that black art in this country should always address the struggle for justice and freedom, or is it okay to write human drama that doesn’t take any sort of racial or political stance, or just because a playwright or cast is black in this country, does it automatically take a racial or political stance?


Richard 26:17

I think it’s a little bit of item 2 and item 3.  All black playwrights, actually I think I’m safe in saying most black playwrights are not writing overtly political drama right now. And never have been.  But once you start capturing our lives in dramatic form, just having…just seeing us on stage living our lives in America, that is a political statement, it just automatically is, the way things are right now.  And so, it’s almost impossible not to address the social and political dynamics if you’re going to be true to the characters that, you know, you’re creating.  But we collectively as writers have been writing plays about family disfunction, we’ve been writing plays about romance, and failed romance. [Laughter]


Keturah 27:30

Right?  A favorite subject of many.


Richard 27:34

You know, and I wish I could at least be in a failed romance, you know?  So if, as writers, we are true to ourselves, then we are in fact writing about the human condition as much as David Mamet, or as much as Marsha Norman, or any other playwright who’s not black, but who is writing honestly and truthfully about life as they have experienced it.  Yes, we are African American, Afro-American, Black, or however you want to define us…


Keturah 28:27



Richard 28:28

…in terms of our appearance.  But the subject matter that we’re writing is reflective of the human condition because black people are human.  Jitney is not an overtly black drama in terms of, you know, August Wilson’s first play, Jitney.


Keturah 28:48

Right, yes.


Richard 28:49

It’s not a drama about the black condition in America, but there are black people who are living in that story, you know, who are reflective of things that have been going on in America.  Okay, it’s a play that takes place in a community, a working class community, called the Hill District in Pittsburgh.  It is essentially, at its core, a play about a father who has been devastated by the fact that his son, in whom he had placed so many dreams and so much hope for, wound up spending fifteen years in prison for murdering a girl.  And now, so much of that play is about the father’s inability to forgive his son.  His son is begging for forgiveness and trying somehow to reconnect, and his father’s resisting him.  That’s at the core of the play.  Now that is something, as a subject, that could go on..I mean I could see everyone from Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams, right on down to David Ray, writing a play like that, but it’s written by a black author, and so everyone is sort of…even with August it kind of gets ghettoized into this “Black Drama.”  And, you know, people are trying to…you know, they attach other things to it.  But August would argue, and certainly I would…August is writing a play that has as much human…or has as much humanity in it than, you know, some of the best work of people like Miller or O’Neal, you know, both of whom have written father/son plays in their own canon. And for that reason, we have to start expanding the horizon of the American play canon because when you look at the totality of plays.  I got into it…I think I may have mentioned something about this in the memoir.  I got into a big thing at the Negro Ensemble Company very early in my career, when…oh yeah, I did write about it.  I think I did.  I was on a panel with some very distinguished black scholars and artists and everything, and one of them, she just castigated all these young black playwrights, and went on and on and on about how, you know, Amiri Baraka was too much foul language, and “get whitey, get whitey,” that was all he had to say.  And while she was going on about this, I was making a list of plays by black playwrights that I had seen that season and the season before in theaters across New York, that had absolutely nothing to do with the race problem…there was like 25 of them.  Yeah, I confronted her about that.  I confronted her about that kind of limited scope, or limited idea of what it was that we were capable of as a group of writers, you know…and even down to today, there’s this narrow vision…and I think this goes back to one of your points that you just asked in your question…this narrow vision of what black drama should be.  And so where does a Jeremy O’Harris fit in that?  And where does Tavin McRainey fit in…where does Katori Hall or Lydia Diamond…where do they fit in these very narrow ideological spaces that people want to place black theater in?


Keturah 33:59

Do you feel like…can a black playwright in this country…do you feel like they will eventually ever be able to just be known as a playwright, or that black stories can be known in theater just as American stories?  Is this is a place that you feel theater and, for that matter, opera, is going to, or do you feel like we have a lot more work to do to get to a place where that’s so?


Richard 34:25

In the current space, no.  In the post pandemic space?  Possibly.  This goes all the way back to the conversation we were having before we started.


Keturah 34:38



Richard 34:39

I think as we move forward, you know, deeper into this century, the racial demographics and the population demographics in this country are shifting, and they’re shifting to a space where no one racial group is the majority.  At New York University now, in dramatic writing for the last two years, I have been teaching students who, on the undergraduate level, who have been born since the year 2000.  Either 2000 or just after.  They have no recollection whatsoever of the 20th century.


Keturah 35:30

Post 9/11 children.  Wow.


Richard 35:32

Yeah.  I mean, the 20th century for them means the same thing that for my generation the 20’s…the 1920’s, you know?  That was before we came along.  It’s news reels, it’s stuff…it’s information that’s in books, it’s stories that our parents were telling us.  And for them, it’s the same thing with the 20th century.  This century, the 21st century belongs to them, and for most of them, they’re going to enter their 30’s just ten years from now.  And usually, for every generation when you’re in your thirties?  That’s when you start taking things over.  So, you know, what has this generation seen?  For a huge chunk of their very young lives – still very young lives – there was a black president.


Keturah 36:32

True.  Yes.


Richard 36:34

You know?  And for another chunk of their lives, there’s a real possibility that there may be a black Vice President.  There is the probability that there will be a woman president.  So, going into a space like that where there are these new levels of expectation, what else begins to change?  You know, especially on the college level, they’re meeting people from all walks of life.  All of these demographics are now starting to move into the world of employment, they’re getting jobs, they’re teaching, they’re running businesses.  They’re doing all kinds of things. And when you have that kind of change going on throughout the population itself, points of view start to switch.  Points of view become changed, and these new points of view suddenly become the establishment itself.  In a context like that, how we interpret ourselves, who is making the interpretations, who is validating the interpretation?  All of that changes.  It changes from one particular point of view that was predominant back then, to a whole new point of view that I think becomes part of whatever this new post pandemic conversation is supposed to be.


Keturah 38:10

And it’s a massively changing conversation just even as we speak right now, which is good.


Richard 38:16

Yes, Yes!  And maybe, indeed, it’s the optimist in me…the hopeless optimist in me…but, at a certain point I had to stop despairing about this pandemic, and I began to start thinking about why has it happened, how can it..you know, and what happens to the people who come out the other end?  They’re not going to want to go back to the world that they lived in before.  You know, they’re going to be angry in some cases, in other cases they’re going to disoriented, in other cases they’re going to be apprehensive. But then people are going to start talking to each other, they’re going to say, “Oh my god, look at all of the work we’ve got to do.”  People are going to start talking about how they’re going to rebuild, and the conversations that come out of that are going to be about, “Well, here we are.  How do we…okay…”. It’s already started.  The pandemic caused all of us to be in the same place at the same time when George Floyd was killed, and we all saw it.


Keturah 39:46



Richard 39:47

It wasn’t like, “Oh I was at work.  I didn’t see that news broadcast about Eric Garner.”  “Well, I heard about Sandra Bland, but well, you know, I was doing something else at the time, and I mean, that’s all the way down in Texas and I’m all the way up here in Maine.”  Except now, we were all in front of our televisions when it happened.


Keturah 40:15

You think that’s somehow a silver lining inside of the…I mean, not a silver lining.  That’s a weird way to put it, I guess, but just this…


Richard 40:23

But I know what you mean, and I think anyone listening gets an idea of what you’re saying.  It’s because we were there and we saw it, and there was no getting away from it.  And suddenly, when that police officer looked into the camera while he was killing that man.  And he was looking at us, and he was saying, “see, I can do this anytime I want and I can get away with it.”  And the outrageousness of that.  And people suddenly realized also, he’s acting in my name.  He’s saying it’s okay because people like me have never bothered him about it before.  What does that say about me?  No.  That is not who I am.  And suddenly, it’s not just black people in the streets saying “Black Lives Matter,” its people from across the racial spectrum in this country, and across an age cohort in this country that is not like any other age cohort that came before it.


Keturah 41:33



Richard 41:34

So yeah, things are going to be different.  And maybe the pandemic caused it, in part, but rather than being defeated by it, you have people who are determined to make something positive come out of all of this turmoil.  And it’s going to happen on a social level, a political level, and it’s happening on an artistic level as well.


Keturah 42:04

You know I…reading your memoir, you paint such a terrific picture of Newark, Harlem, DC in the 60’s and 70’s…


Richard 42:13



Keturah 42:14

…and I think there’s so much at that time, so much activism also happening.  Do you…does it feel…does what’s happening right now, does it feel familiar, does it feel anything like what was happening at that time as well?


Richard 42:29

Believe me, every old revolutionary over the age of 65 is grinning from ear to ear [while Laughing]


Keturah 42:39

[Laughter] Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. [Laughter]


Richard 42:41

You know, Thank you, thank you!  [Laughter] The kids are alright! [Laughter]


Keturah 42:51

Yeah.  [Laughter]


Richard 42:53

Yeah, this all looks very familiar.  I think our role, basically, is to stay the hell out of your way.  If there’s some advice from us that you guys need, we should be here and we should be willing to give it, but trying to get back out there and get on the stage and do things the way we did it back then.  You don’t need that.  Every revolution, certainly every social revolution in America has its own characteristics, and the people who drive that revolution are always the young.  And…it’s…this is your turn guys.  Sorry!  You’ve gotta carry this one.  But, basically that’s what we did back then.  The civil rights movement certainly had an older generation that had been out there waging the good fight for years before any of us came along.  And the same was true of the anti-war movement.  There were people who were “Ban the Bomb” in the 50’s, who were leading the charge against Fascism in the 30’s and everything, and they were still out there in the 60’s.  But basically, where there was civil rights, and where there was anti war, it was kids.


Keturah 44:43



Richard 44:44

It was, you know, young people.  You know, Martin Luther King was in his 20’s and 30’s when he was leading the marches. 


Keturah 44:45

Yeah, that’s right.  We forget that, don’t we?  We see him as somebody that was older, but he was not.


Richard 44:51

He wasn’t.  He was 39 years old when he was assassinated.


Keturah 44:55



Richard 44:56

And, you know, Huey Newton was in his 20’s and 30’s.  Eldridge Cleaver was a similar age.  You know, that was then.  We were out in front of that then.  We made our mistakes.  So, read the history books and figure out what we did wrong, and don’t repeat them.


Keturah 45:22

[Laughter] Right.


Richard 45:27

Our job now is, you know, like I said, basically to be there, so if there’s some information that you need from us, you know, give it to support you in any way that we can.  The decisions that are going to be made ultimately about where things head rest with you, because the rest of the century belongs to you.


Keturah 45:54

That’s right.  That’s wonderful.  You’re still writing.  You’re still…In 2015 you had a play premiered.  It was your first full-length play in many years, Autumn at the Crossroads Theater.


Richard 46:08

Autumn, yes.


Keturah 46:09

Was that the last full-length play that you wrote?  Are you writing something right now?


Richard 46:15

Autumn was the last full-length play.  I’ve written a couple of short plays since then.  And then of course, the operas, the opera librettos…libretti. [Laughter].  And I am working…or trying to formulate this new full-length play.  It’s more of a historical drama.  But it’s an interesting thing, Keturah.  I have not settled on its form, and I think that’s why I haven’t gotten more deeply into it.


Keturah 46:56



Richard 46:57

I’ve outlined it from beginning to end.  I know exactly how I want the story to unfold across the time period.  It’s a play that starts in 1863 with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, and ends about 20 years later.  I know that.  But I think, where I’m falling down, is I keep imagining this play as being some kind of linear unfolding of events.  It has to be…but I think where it really needs to go is abstract, impressionistic, and it also needs to be non linear.  And I just haven’t figured that part out yet, how it looks in terms of how the story, you know, would unfold.  But I think if I move in that kind of arena, I have a lot more freedom to move about and to tell the story the way that I want.


Keturah 48:12



Richard 48:14

It’s not a linear story, and it’s not a realistic story.  It’s not… I started out thinking of it as some kind of big epic drama, but no.  Maybe it’s something else, and I just gotta figure out what that something else is.


Keturah 48:31

Feels like your opera work might be influencing your playwriting work as well.  Everything sort of connects.


Richard 48:36

Yeah, yeah.  You know, now…it’s such a…writing a libretto and working in opera.  It’s such a fascinating form.  For any writer, something that presents a new challenge and everything is always extremely stimulating.  You know, writing librettos for operas offers the same kind of magic that came from writing screenplays and teleplays, because you’re moving into an arena where the visual is as powerful as the spoken word, or in this case, the musical word. You’re moving into an arena where space is used in a different kind of way, the same way space is used in a different kind of way in film.  You’re moving into an arena where you can use light and sound to create its own kind of magic similarly to some of the ways that film editing allows you to move from locale to locale, and from interior action to exterior action on screen.  So, yeah, I found something completely new.  I’ve found a whole new arena that allows me to continue to use my imagination the same way that film and television did.


Keturah 50:25

Well, here’s to new experiences throughout your entire life, right?  That’s terrific.


Richard 50:29

Absolutely.  I want to go out like Picasso!  They say he was on his way to the studio when he croaked.  [laughter]


Keturah 50:38

Perfect.  That’s right, I’ve always said I want to go out with a god mic in my hand in a theater.  That’s what I want to do [Laughter].


Richard 50:45

That’s it!  That’s it!  You want your last…it’s sort of like…you want your last, your very last thought to be, ‘I’ve got it!”


Keturah 50:57

Exactly.  And that’s it.  Richard Wesley, thank you so much for coming on talk to me.  I loved your book, I’ve loved this conversation.  I am deeply appreciative.  So, I really really appreciate it.


Richard 51:12

Thank you.


Keturah 51:13

Thanks again to Richard for such a great chat.  I urge everyone to read his book, It’s Always Loud In The Balcony.  It’s a fascinating look at the life long creative process of a dedicated artist.  Next week, I’ll share an interview with John de los Santos, a director who started writing libretti a few years ago, and – let’s all cross fingers – will premiere his and Clint Borzoni’s opera, The Copper Queen, in Arizona in the fall.  I hope you’ll join us.


51:41 – [Mozart played on a piano]


Keturah 51:48

This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet.  Thanks for listening, and until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.


52:06 – [Mozart played on a piano]