Thulani Davis: Keeping It Real
Siegel, Jessica, American Theatre
Her latest project mixes Southern languor with scholarly rigor
Some people have hot karma - I'm nor that kind of person," Thulani Davis will tell you. But for the theatre writer and novelist, the past year has encompassed the premiere in Chicago of the opera Amistad, for which she wrote the libretto; a workshop production of her new play about Zora Neale Hurston, Everybody's Ruby, at New York's Public Theater, with a full mounting slated for February; and work on a musical about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings for Livent, the producers of Ragtime.
That kind of creative output is enough to make the outside observer skeptical of Davis's karmic assertion. After two decades of work in a variety of genres - poetry, novels, performance pieces, operas, a play adaptation and now an original full-length play - she has developed a highly individualistic approach to reworking and reshaping familiar and not-so-familiar history. That approach may well reach its culmination in Everybody's Ruby, which sets out to solve several mysteries in the life of Hurston, the Florida-born novelist and journalist who became a leading figure in the black literary renaissance of the 1930s.
Davis, 49, a short, compact, light-skinned African-American woman with a haircut that falls somewhere between a buzzcut and a pixie, is an entrancing conversationalist whose wide knowledge of history, literature, film, theatre and politics informs her language. Only a hint of her childhood in Hampton, Va., flavors her speech, which alternates between New York speed and, every paragraph or so, an unexpected stretch of Southern languor.
The historic events that have been transformed in Davis's theatre projects include a 19th-century slave rebellion (Amistad), Malcolm X's rise and assassination (the opera X, written with her composer-cousin Anthony Davis) and now, in Everybody's Ruby, a murder case in the segregated Florida of the 1950s. "I'm burrowing in on issues within the story," she says, in a capsule description of her history-transforming technique, "trying to find a truth that seems plausible and believable. I'm trying to find the emotional heart of the story. I'm looking at how characters might have responded to a situation."
Davis fell in love with the theatre early on - "I integrated the Washington Theater Club when I was 13," she avows - but at Barnard College, which she attended as an undergraduate in late '60s, the theatre department was nearly non-existent, so she was steered toward literary criticism. The '70s found her writing poetry and doing performance pieces (or "choreopoems," as they were known at the time) with friends Ntozake Shange and Jessica Hagedorn. (Shange's for colored girls . . . was drawn from the experiences of the three and other women friends.) In 1977, Davis, Shange and Hagedorn joined forces in Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, a collection of choreopoems they performed with jazz accompaniment. …