Evan Cabnet (00:00):
Hi everyone. My name is Evan Cabnet and I'm the Artistic Director of LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater. And I would like to welcome you to this conversation about the playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and author of The Forbidden City, Bill Gunn. It is our hope at LCT that through this wonderful new audio version of the play and through the conversation you're about to hear, we can introduce audiences to Mr. Gunn, a brilliant artist, actor and writer. So joining me today is award-winning playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and the esteemed director of The Forbidden City Seret Scott, welcome to you both and thank you for joining me.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (00:41):
Evan Cabnet (00:43):
So Branden, let's start with you. This entire project began with my asking you about underappreciated plays and playwrights. And Bill's was the first name that came up. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were introduced to his work?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (00:58):
Yeah, he's one of those folks who has haunted every footnote of anything I've ever read. And ironically enough, it all kind of came together, the serendipity began at the beginning of COVID. When of course we were all home getting through movies we've been promising now watch for awhile and books we we're thinking about watching for awhile. And I came across two movies in quick succession. One was Ganja and Hess, which is maybe the movie he's best known for. It's just a kind of wild, strange, hyper-intelligent, vampire, avant vampire movie from the seventies that I became very obsessed with. And then I watched a movie by the late great Kathleen Collins called Losing Ground, starring the amazing Seret Scott here. And I guess I had this moment where I was like, "Who is Bill Gunn?"
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (01:57):
And so I went down a hole, because I hadn't really heard enough about him, I guess is really the point. And I've always been curious about all artists really, but specifically Black artists in pockets who obviously lived in a network or community of other artists and writers. And were writing in the context of each other. Who didn't quite make it into the textbooks, didn't quite make it into the revival circuit. So I did a deep dive of my own and churned up all kinds of strange interviews with him and video recordings. And suddenly I realized that he was this important forebear in terms of Black identified theater artists in New York, working off and on Broadway. And it was so curious to me that no one was really talking about him, or knew who he was, or he wasn't talked about in the same breadth as his contemporaries. And then when you call me Evan to be like, "What would you do?"
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (03:03):
I had just learned about this play of his called The Black Picture Show. And I tracked down a copy of the script, a used copy on Amazon. And it's a very wild and very... I hate when people say, "It's ahead of its time." But he's oddly talking about something that I think people are still talking about. And yet we acted like he didn't start the conversation or something. Well he didn't start the conversation, but you know, this is like a long conversation about black artists trying to work within an industry that might be antagonist to their actual aesthetic needs, or being trapped or made insane by commercial demands and how sometimes commercial demands go hand in hand with white supremacists ideologies.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (03:52):
Anyway, so I was like, "Evan should do this play." But then of course that was the hardest thing to try to pull together for an audio play it because it is so... And honestly, all of his work has such a dense relationship to music and poetry and the visual. And so the other play of his I had just found a copy of and read in this weird typescript was Forbidden City. Which I learned was the very last play he wrote.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (04:18):
And I was very interested in... I think there's a thread or dramatic throughout his work that's about loosely processing autobiographical material or testing it in the theatrical form. And I found this play very... I found it's ambitions very stirring. And I found this idea of what... No one knows when they're going to die, but I found that this being the last play someone writes, that in some ways tries to engage so openly with biography. It was a very curious object to me and I really wanted to hear it out loud and experience some of the power of his language. Because that's one thing that he definitely had, was this unbelievable... Like when he's striking out lyrically, it is like a roll of thunder.
Evan Cabnet (05:11):
Yeah, thank you. And so Seret, as Branden mentioned, you were in a film with Bill. And so can you speak a little bit to what Bill was like as an artist, as a collaborator and what your personal experience was with him?
Seret Scott (05:29):
I would say that I had a very specific relationship, a friendship with him in two different or three different ways. First of all, he was a friend, a person whom I was around often. Because at that time, one of my best friends was a woman that was mentioned earlier, Kathleen Collins. And I spent a lot of time up at... They all lived in the Nyack Pyrmont area. At that time, I'm going to double back, at that time there were a lot of artists living in a very small community, and a lot of black artists were there. So it was kind of a social circle that was not social in the way we may think of. But it was, somebody would drop by the house and they just happened to be some sort of major a writer or something.
Seret Scott (06:31):
And I guess I didn't really think about some of the people that came through. Now Bill would be one person, not only was he a good friend of Kathy's, but his home as I recall had people who were of a certain kind of literary bent, that would just stop by. And I know I was there several times and it would be kind of like... Oh I don't know, the Harlem Renaissance where people just stopped by and talked and did things and ate food. And so it was a real interesting time to be in that circle and among those people. And I have to admit I was not one of them, because most of them were writers. And there was... I'm sorry I've been thinking... Let's just say that this was for me about between 48 and 50 years ago, because I'm talking about the mid seventies or something, early seventies. And there were just people that went on to be super famous in some way, but not in the way that we think of today.
Seret Scott (07:54):
There were people that Branden is discovering today that need to be remembered in whatever way. So that whole community up there, it was just extraordinary when I look back on it. At that time, it wasn't a big deal, in that I didn't think of how all of these artists, all of these writers, all of these musicians all ended up in somewhat the same area. It was kind of a wonderful thing. And in that way, Bill was, he and his house seemed to have that sort of opening on a door where you just sort of, "Oh, hi Bill." And then people came in and whatever. It was an unusual house in a lot of ways, it was very set back off of the road. And there was water, there was I think the Hudson, yes I know the Hudson was right there
Seret Scott (08:55):
So you could just walk out the door and walk to the Hudson. Lots of mosquitoes, but whatever. And the people around, the people who lived in that area as well, I remember. It was wonderful because they had big lawns, because it was somewhat, even though it was a little city, because it was Nyack or upper Nyack, it was very farm ish in certain ways. And they had lawns and they had sheep. So you'd see the person across the street and they had five or six sheep and they would graze all day and that was how they cut the lawn. Because it was a huge lawn. It was like a meadow or something. And this is right in New York, not very far up the road, route nine or something yeah.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (09:58):
Yeah. I don't even know if I mentioned, I feel like, I don't know if we don't brag about this, but the whole point-
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (10:03):
And I feel like, I don't know if there's a way to double back about this, but the whole point of bringing up Black Picture Show is that it premiered at the Beaumont. It was one of the, when Joe Papp took Lincoln Center over, in that kind of really strange stretch of the '70s, he did all this wild work by these insane writers, including Ron Milner. And I think Miguel Pinero's. Is that his name? Short Eyes. And this is one of an insane number plays that he did before, I guess, they told Joe Papp to get the hell out of Lincoln Center and go back to Astor Place.
Evan Cabnet (10:37):
Is that right? That was when they did Foreman's Threepenny Opera.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (10:42):
That's right. Yeah. And the [crosstalk 00:10:44] plays that ruined everything. But what's funny is Bill Gunn is technically a Lincoln Center artist. That's why I felt like he would be a [crosstalk 00:10:53].
Evan Cabnet (10:52):
Yeah. And Seret, what was it like shooting a film with Bill?
Seret Scott (10:58):
Oh, he was great. He was really, really easy for me to work with. And I say for me, I don't know that with all the artists, I felt like. I don't know that he... He knew so much more perhaps than some of us, the other crew members, because he had already done his own film and all. And a lot of our crew were mostly young people who were students who had done some things, but not a lot. And so maybe something that Bill may say, they were trying to figure out and hadn't figured it out or something. I don't know that for a fact, but I do know that he was able to get done what he needed done in anything. And for me, he was just great to work with.
Seret Scott (11:48):
I will admit that I was a little in awe at that time. So I think I felt that I was trying to figure out how to work with this man who had such great work all over the place. And I don't think that he knew that. Because he was really friendly, and let's do this, and try this in the scene or something. So I don't think he knew that I felt a little, that I needed to watch and respond with him in the work we were doing, as opposed to necessarily generating something because he was just an incredible actor.
Evan Cabnet (12:43):
Great. Thank you. And Branden, so thinking about other writers from that period in the '70s and the '80s that you're aware of, that you've been reading, how does Bill, or in what ways does Bill's work stand out to you?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (13:03):
Well, one of the things that's interesting about... So I also have so many questions for Seret, but we can get to that at the back end when you're out of questions, Evan. But in some ways, what's remarkable to Bill is the way in which he's in absolute conversation with his contemporaries at the time. I think when I read his plays, I think of Sam Shepherd, I think of David Rabe, I think of Wally Shawn. For some reason it's this kind of strange form of American expressionism almost on stage that just leaps off the page and also a real belief in language. His work kind of moves between all these wild registers, not just in terms of formally, we've got director [inaudible 00:13:52] scene that's actually someone's hallucination of what's actually happening.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (13:57):
But he also goes back and forth between this kind of quippy banter and then these just beautiful arias that are just, to me, stunning, amazing writing. And that really is what sets him out. And then also, I think most people's paths that at least now is that you start as a playwright and then maybe you branch out into film and television. But the truth is, he wrote a lot of films before he actually turned towards the theater with any real conviction. And there's something about the... I feel like when you start out in the theater, you're very humble and small and you want to be resourceful and you want to only ask for just enough and then you kind of build out from there. Whereas I think he kind of walks into the theater with all this bombast and he's like, "I want this and this and this. I want a band on stage playing Sound of Music. I want to be in the Beaumont."
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (14:52):
I mean, his third play was on the Beaumont stage. There's something about the reach of that. It's just admirable. It's unquestioned ambition and something that I think that I'm picking up on what you're saying, Seret, is that he was just like a creative animal, at least that's the energy I get from him. That he's just kind of created in every form. It was almost like he couldn't quite find the container for all of his ideas and feelings in some way. And I just find that very unique. I feel like someone who's beaten down by the industry we come up through.
Seret Scott (15:28):
I would agree with that. I would say that just what you were saying, that he sort of entered the room and expected to go on and do whatever needed to be done in that way. He's not pushy or anything. He just sort of, "Of course my play's going to be done at the Beaumont." So your question is, or your point is. So it was that kind feeling I got from him, even just working with him in the movie, as well as just listening to him when he was speaking that around some sort of semi-social place in his home, there was a fireplace. And I remembered that very well. And I just remember feeling that he was first of all, really witty, really witty. And had a sharpness to his wit that sort of caught everybody off guard.
Seret Scott (16:34):
And he was very, very smart. Smart in that he was aside from just being learned and all that, he was just smart. And sometimes you would have a whole lot of things happen, a whole lot of things said, and then Bill would say four or five things, sentences about whatever just went on, and then you just close it down because he had figured it out or he was just putting it in its place. And I remember thinking that talking to him, he never spoke condescending to anybody, in a kind of condescending way, at least I never heard of anything. But I know that I felt that he was a really, really intelligent, smart man. Smart. And therefore, I probably didn't want to engage in certain conversations because I just know he was already a person who understood more than I was going to be able to deal with. And he was some years older than I, so I'm going to put it on that, that he was just older.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (17:53):
I'm curious, Seret, you're describing sort of being on set with him, I guess, and feeling a little intimidated. But the work that you know of his was primarily his acting, or had you encountered his writing in any way?
Seret Scott (18:05):
No, I did know. I did know his writing in that I knew Black Picture Show. And I think I... Not even I think. I know I saw Ganja & Hess. It was screened somewhere. And like I said, it was 50 years ago maybe, but I saw a screening of it. And it was so amazing in that nobody was doing work like that. That's the best I can say. That was the Ganja & Hess, nobody had even thought about it. Now again, also Duane Jones, who was in Gajan & Hess, was also a very dear friend of mine. And so I just knew him in another way too. So to see this movie and to know Bill and to know Duane, it was just sort of an extraordinary time.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (19:10):
And I'm curious about how... I'm sorry, Evan. Just jump in if you have more questions. I'm just going to... Because I just kept... Evan, I'm been sitting on COVID all... All of COVID wondering answers to these thing. And so it sounds like there was this, I hesitate to call it a Bohemia, but there was just this kind of confluence of interesting Black creatives, all kind of slightly to the left making kind of non-commercial or traditional work, but were you all meeting because you were acting or what was the kind of social? Was it Nyack? I don't know. Do we look to Nyack school? How did you guys find each other and what kept people interested in...
Seret Scott (19:50):
Well, I'll tell you. My friend Kathy's house was kind of always open and people would stop by there. The writer, I don't know if you know the novelist, John A. Williams, what he-
Seret Scott (20:03):
No, the novelist, John A. Williams, he was major at that time and it should still be, so look him up. But he lived maybe three or four houses away or something. So he would stop by... Actually, I wish I can remember the context for it, but... Oh, I can't remember the context so I'm not even going to say that, but there were a lot of people who were major and they just gravitated to that whole area. Then there would be places like cafes, which we don't have anymore, which I just say we, just in general, that you can go and you would hear some jazz and the jazz musicians were semi famous and they were 10 feet in front of you while you're sitting with a bunch of writers and artists, it was just that kind of place. It was Nyack, Piermont, Grand View, I think it was Sparta, I think was the name of it. Just artists were there, they just went to someone's house. Then since everybody smoked cigarettes you sit around and you have some wine and you smoke a pack of cigarettes and just talk. At that time, also, especially with the black artists, a lot of them, and myself included, had already done somewhat of a European stint, meaning they had spent some time overseas with artists over there. It was another kind of vibe where you just talk about, oh yeah, well, and I was staying, where were you staying in Paris? Or in Italy or something. Oh yeah. Right. So I went here and there with this person or that person who was an artist that we would have known. It was just that kind of vibe that I don't see that much anymore in the way people interact. Well certainly not now during COVID, but even the way the artists interacted at that time had a very Harlem Renaissance thing where you gather and you talk about incredible things and everybody's written something or painted something. Yeah. Musicians as well.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (22:43):
But was it as self-conscious as something like the Harlem Renaissance, like you guys weren't running around and being like the Nyack Renaissance, that wasn't-
Seret Scott (22:50):
Oh no. I don't think anybody... No. I don't think even at that time we thought about... I'm not going to say we, because I wasn't living there. All of them were living there. I don't think they thought about the fact that this is what it was. That this was this kind of artist community, it was just that everybody who liked water and, or, fields and stuff like that, they were all living there. Since Kathy was my very best friend, actually, and I spent a lot of time just up in that area with all of them. Yeah.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (23:35):
Yeah. I could talk about... I'm sorry. I mean, we should talk about Forbidden City at some point, but losing ground is so striking because I'm like, I've never seen this kind of marriage or community ever depicted like that. It's about like, middle-class, Black couple, she's a philosophy PhD or she's writing a book on, I want to say-
Seret Scott (23:56):
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (23:57):
... Yeah. Then he's a painter, and it's just how they escape upstate and this hilarity ensues slash not hilarity, but it just was such a portrait of almost like a lost period or a lost generation.
Seret Scott (24:12):
Exactly. What you're describing is why the movie was met in a way where people were like, who are these people?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (24:21):
Seret Scott (24:23):
What are they talking about? At the time that the movie was released it was a whole different genre for Black film. So we weren't a white film, but it seemed like we were to people. So the critics and everybody just didn't know where to put it.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (24:46):
Yeah. I think that's related to Forbidden City in that I think part of what I'm drawn to in that play... Well also, it's so funny to realize that play is premiering in the upswing of August Wilson, right. That Lloyd and August are in New Haven documenting Black life and there's almost a message in a bottle energy to it where I think he's trying to paint a picture, or put in a time capsule, again, a disappearing way of life or an erased way of living that is this upwardly mobile, Black life, mid 20th century that's still haunted by, and still wrestling with the big H history things we align with any idea of being Black in the 20th century, right. There's something that feels almost alien about it. When I read it, I felt like I recognize that the writer is drawing from something very real and actually almost desperately trying to get it down in some way. Yet I feel like the like decoder ring, or the goggles I need to fully parse it have been stolen from me or they disappeared or something. I don't know. It's a very interesting, dramatic experience to be inside of.
Seret Scott (26:17):
Follow up to what you just said is why I really wanted to know why you chose the play, Forbidden City, what it was that struck you? Because the world of literature and playwriting and all for Black writers is just really different now. I didn't know how that step happened for you?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (26:48):
Yeah. I think it was about thinking through his... I'm always interested in the... Robert O'Hara has the quote he'll probably now disown where he would say, someone asked him, "What's the hardest thing about being a Black writer?" He would say, "August Wilson," but August Wilson, in some ways became, sorry, Robert, August Wilson, in some ways defines the shared imaginary around talking about Black life in some way, and Black family. Everything is seen through the veil of that. Actress' careers are made or broken on their ability to approximate that one man's individual language and sensibility.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (27:33):
I was really moved to encounter this other Black family play happening, contemporaneously and to feel how different it was and how, almost like O'Neil, it has these jagged edges to it. I think he's thinking about O'Neil honestly, I think the dead brother is a bit of a citation or feels related to Long Day's Journey into Night. Even the fullness of that mother character, I mean, she's a vicious character, but in some ways she's the real estate. I mean, she's like the emotional cushion of the entire piece in some ways. I felt that there was a daringness to the depth of the... There's such a riskiness to his portrayal of the dysfunction of that family that feels, oddly, he doesn't seem angry at it or something. He feels like he's actively processing it and he wants to forgive it in some way or resolve it in some way. That's part of the appeal for me of it.
Evan Cabnet (28:44):
A question for you, Seret, so with all of this in mind, what was it like to revisit Bill's work in directing The Forbidden City in 2021?
Seret Scott (29:02):
I'll tell you, when we first spoke, I was thinking, oh, Forbidden City, 2021. Why? Then I started working and re... Well, I re-read it, I hadn't read it in years and years and years, and I re-read it and I said, "Oh my goodness, how did this ever pass the censors and the critics and the community, the audience?" I mean, I just was stunned at the size of everything, the story, the people, the world, the politics, it was just stunning to me. I thought, this is absolutely what needs to happen in 2021. But I didn't know if, because it was couched in the thirties, that whether or not that would translate as well. I just think absolutely.
Seret Scott (30:02):
... branch late as well. And I just think absolutely that aside to what you were saying in terms of they're very real parts of the play, the dead brother, the mother who has some sort of issue, which today we would give her some sort of mental handicap of some sort. But back then, she was just a woman who had not found her way through some things and was working on herself specifically in some kind of way because her needs were not met and we just needed to know. We just needed to know that and she was whatever. I get a little concerned about making any judgements here about her. Or even about the father in his choice in [inaudible 00:31:03]. But I just started to realize that this story was much bigger than what is on the page in that we see this community in 1930s.
Seret Scott (31:22):
And except for a little bit of the language and all, this is exactly what's happening now. And the whole point about how the brother died. The whole point about how this kid cannot break out of whatever is going on in his world, in his family and all, and find a certain kind of acceptance with his, with his own family. And how he did find some acceptance in another place without going into detail. And I remember the kinds of communities that young people would go to back then because they couldn't do anything else because the community, the world, the family all said, "This is absolutely wrong." For maybe religious reasons or whatever. But I do remember some of that happening where people found acceptance in places that were not necessarily healthy, but it was healthy in that the life you were looking for, you were able to experience and know.
Seret Scott (32:47):
I just couldn't believe, while we were working, every single actor at some point said, "This is the biggest, most complicated piece or play that I have ever worked on." And part of that in fact is true in that it is, but also it had to do with them being introduced to the play and having to do it in a short period of time, just in terms of the taping. So the good news about that is when you don't have as much time as you feel like you need, some of the judgments you make, you make based on exactly how it hit you. And it's correct. You find out later that it's correct. Instead of talking, somehow talking out of something, talking yourself out of an understanding of this because you intellectualize it.
Seret Scott (33:56):
And I think that that's what happened with this. That so many of the people would just say, "Oh, my gosh. This is huge. And I'm feeling this and I'm feeling..." I'm having to say, "Go with that until..." And then maybe get another take in another way. But it was just so much information and so many layers of things. And the poetry and the music and the people who showed up in this family. And you just have to say, "Wow." So much is hidden and exposed at the same time. You just have to.
Evan Cabnet (34:38):
Yeah. And so Branden, to bring it full circle, I know you've only heard the rough cut, but we've had a year plus of COVID, you've seen the films, you've read Bill's work. To listen to, again, to an early draft. How does it hit you to hear the play?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (35:03):
Well, I mean, I've listened to it twice, and I've listened to the rough cuts. I don't even know. I was sort of [inaudible 00:35:08] for a time when this actually comes out. And I have to say, he's just so original. He doesn't sound like anybody else to me. I mean, I say that I read him and I feel his contemporary, but I think there's a density to it. And it really believes that the Peter can do a bit more than just tell a story. I think he's after something kind of spiritual. I think he's after sort of feeling some fearlessness. And the stretches of writing that I thought were amazing on the page are still amazing. Especially in the mouths of some of these actors. I'm obsessed with Brenda Pressley. She's literally one of my favorite actresses out here.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (35:48):
And I didn't even know who the cast was. I heard her voice and I knew what an amazing catch for this. And there's just so much I feel about this character of Nick. I mean, in some ways he's both a boy, but he's also trying to be a man. And by the end, he does assert his man-ness, but then you're so... I find myself so worried for him, even in finding that freedom I think Sarah... Sorry, Seret, references. It's so funny. I also, in the time since I chose this, I've gone back and dug up other plays of his. And I just think that there is something worth assessing about what he was up to. I do think there's a lot of writers today who are maybe mining the same patch of forest. I think of Jackie Sibblies Drury. Her work came to mind quite a bit. Aleshea Harris, some of these folks who share a similar fearlessness with the form.
Evan Cabnet (37:00):
I think that's a good primer for the recording itself. And so thank you, Branden. And thank you, Seret, for your time and for your thoughts and your wisdom. And I also would like to say on behalf of producing artistic director, Andre Bishop, and the entire staff at Lincoln Center Theater, thank you so much for tuning in and we hope you enjoy The Forbidden City.