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Creating “Common Ground” with Granville Wyche Burgess

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The New York New Works Theatre Festival in association with Quill Productions are proud to present Granville Wyche Burgess’ musical play about the first time our nation faced a civil war.

Based on fact, COMMON GROUND concerns a meeting between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln regarding his responsibility toward a belief in political and social equality for African-Americans.

COMMON GROUND, a musical presentation, also features a disgruntled John Wilkes Booth likening his current political issues and values as “Playing Brutus to His Caesar.” It dramatizes the question that still haunts a nation founded on both slavery AND equality – for all: what is the answer to injustice? Vengeance or Common Ground?

COMMON GROUND will run at the Acorn theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. Its limited run is September 6 & 13 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets available at www.nynwtheatrefestival.com

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OK, that’s the press release, now let’s have the real story. We were fortunate enough to get some time with thoughtful and thought-provoking author, Granville Wyche Burgess.

MR. BURGESS, WELCOME. TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST

I’ve always been struck by the phrase “Art is the movement toward hope.” It captures the essence of my belief as an artist and as a person. Cynicism and negativity won’t be found in my work. There is plenty of drama, plenty of conflict, plenty of anguish and remorse and sorrow, but there is always, if not a happy ending, at least a positive one, an ending that points towards a better tomorrow. In my life, I have walked in a gentle rain of blessings with occasional lightning strikes, and I write from those blessings. Frankly, I have to watch myself, because I can sometimes be overly sentimental and too simplistic. I am constantly challenging myself to look for more nuance in my characters, to say less in order to say more, to not always spell out so clearly what a character thinks and wants. Perhaps that is why, after beginning my career writing serious American drama, I have been drawn to write musicals, which usually can’t delve as deeply as drama and, when they do, have the emotion of music to heighten the feeling. But I also like writing musicals because I have discovered a latent joy in writing lyrics and, I’ve been told, some talent for doing so. I love the challenge of saying something clever or meaningful or funny or poignant in a very few words and in rhyme. I’m a long way from the wit of Cole Porter or the intellectual sophistication of Stephen Sondheim, but I am enjoying the journey immensely. And it’s just plain fun to go around singing songs I’ve written! While many people grew up knowing they would be in theatre, I had no idea. My artistic journey unfolded as a complete surprise, and that has been one of its delights. And I try to be more than just a theatre artist. I try to be an artist at love, an artist at patience, an artist at understanding. If I’ve learned one thing from all these years as an artist, it’s that you’ve got to be who you are. And this is who I am: an artist of hope.

WHAT GAVE YOU THE IDEA FOR THIS PIECE AND HOW MUCH IS BASED ON HISTORY?

I majored in American history and founded a nonprofit, Quill Entertainment Company, whose mission is “Teaching America’s Heritage Through Story and Song,” so I have long been drawn to dramatizing American history. After completing a musical, Battlecry, about the Battle of Gettysburg and musicalizing “The Gettysburg Address,” I felt an urge to write about Abraham Lincoln, who has always been one of my favorite Americans. And so I began reading about Lincoln and discovered, to my amazement, his relationship with Frederick Douglass. How could I have never known about this?! What an overlooked American. The more I read about Douglass, the more I admired him. And the more drafts I wrote (eleven to date), the more Douglass began to take over the story. About the sixth draft, I discovered my theme: Common Ground. And finally, in the last draft, I figured out a way to have Douglass be the protagonist. I have known that this would be the story of a friendship from the moment I read that Douglass crashed Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball, was barred at the door, and Lincoln insisted that he be allowed in. And then he introduced him to everyone as “My friend, Douglass.” To me, that signaled that Lincoln was acknowledging Douglass as his equal—a startling fact since he had said that he had never met a black man who was equal to a white. That much, and more, is based on history, but writing this musical has been a constant struggle for me to let go of the history and just write the drama. In the beginning, I tried to write the Lincoln/Douglass scenes based on what they actually wrote about their meetings, but that didn’t produce the drama I needed. Fortunately, my collaborator, Stan Wietrzychowski, kept reminding me that our job was to write entertainment first and history second. I have read dozens of books in the writing of this musical, so there is a great deal of history in it, but not so much that the storyline was hampered. Historians will have plenty to argue about in this piece, but I hope they and everybody else will have plenty to enjoy.

WHAT WAS YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS?

I have spoken a little about this above. What drew me to writing this story was the knowledge that no one had dramatized the Douglass/Lincoln relationship before—it’s always exciting to do something first. And I saw in their friendship a chance for me to address a subject that has always spoken deeply to me: the injustice done to our African-American sisters and brothers. The horrible aspects of racism, our country’s original sin, are obviously still with us today. I care so much that we treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of skin color. So an important part of my thought process was: I want to speak as eloquently as I can about the need for racial healing in our country, the need for us all to live up to our founding ideals. As to why a musical? Because I love writing lyrics and I enjoy the challenge of structuring a story that allows room for song to advance the plot. But I also believe that our story becomes more powerful when set to music. It never occurred to me to write it any other way than as a musical.

FIRST FESTIVAL? HOW’S IT GOING?

Yes, this is my first festival ever. It has been a delight to work with my wonderful company in bringing our excerpt to life. And I have really appreciated the support I have received from Gene Fisch and all the NYNW staff. This is a professional, class-act all the way and I am proud— and grateful—to be a part of it.

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM THE EXPERIENCE?

I haven’t really had the experience yet because we have had our time onstage. But in meeting just a few of the artists involved, I have learned yet again that artists are incredibly inventive in what excites their imagination. We all live in the same world, but it sure does strike us all differently. Thank God!

WHAT’S NEXT?

I have been commissioned to write a play based on a book about Maine. The second in my trilogy of Amish Romances, published by Chickadee Prince Books, comes out this September and then I will embark on writing the third book! Another novel, The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe, comes out next October. And how’s this for an audacious dream?: I would like to get Batttlecry revived so that one day, along with COMMON GROUND, I can have two musicals about the Civil War running in repertory on Broadway! A guy’s gotta dream…

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