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Roger Q. Mason on ‘Onion Creek’

December 9, 2011

Roger Q. Mason - Photo by Paige Craig

Mason’s Onion Creek is set in the summer of 1873 inDel Valle,Texas. It is crafted not altogether loosely on his own mixed-race family, black and Irish, from the hamlet east ofAustin.

 

The press account says the play centers on an encounter between Nathaniel Haws, the mixed-race son of a former slave owner and Minerva Simmons, an Irish traveler with a haunted past. When Nathaniel’s relationship with Minerva moves from the field to the ranch house, their growing intimacy teaches both generations of Haws men the true meaning of legacy and identity.

 

The show opened last Saturday. Mason says it started as a one act play under the tutelage of Lynn Nottage (Ruined), a visiting lecturer during Mason’s junior year at Princeton. “It started out as a riff on the Adam and Eve tale. Rather than the apple, or as they say now, the pomegranate, it is the peach because my grandmother’s family is actually from Del Valle [pronounced valley]. And her grandfather came out of slavery and started buying land in ruralTexas and had a peach orchard. He would always tell his daughters not to eat the peaches because they were for selling in town.”

 

The girls, he says, would try to sneak out in the afternoon and steal peaches when they thought the coast was clear. “That was the first image of the play for me was someone yelling across the field not to each the peaches.”

 

Over lunch, Mason says his family has a history of interracial relations. “So the story is about what they’re willing to do for love. That’s the history we see.”

 

The play takes place on the new frontier, 1870s rural Texas, in the reconstruction era. “It’s after slavery and before Jim Crow. It’s a pocket of time in history when you start to see the promise for African Americans and for immigrants. No sooner did that promise start to blossom than it was quickly taken away, both by official decrees like Plessy v. Ferguson, but also by individuals who couldn’t take change. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t the only hate group of the time attacking black businessmen and interracial families.”

 

Mason refers to a euphemistic organization called the Brotherhood to blend historical truth with magical realism. “It is what I call ‘historical fantasia’. This is what I call ‘forgotten moments in remembered times’.  The question is how can we employ drama to change the cultural narrative through theater and write a new story into our consciousness?”

 

When Mason left Princetonand returned to LA’s Koreantown, his family’s home for six decades, he got involved in Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s literary department. “As a volunteer I was able to present parts of my play at Winterfest, for example. I applied to do a reading at the Dramatist’s Guild and the rep, Larry Dean Harris, was very encouraging.”

 

Something occurred to Mason during the various readings. “There was both a physical and spiritual presence that was missing. We needed the creek. I needed somebody to give voice to black womanhood, to Earth Mother. We always referenced people going to or coming back to the creek so I thought, why not have a personification of the creek? There are many models for this. Caroline, or Change was instrumental to me, as was …and Jesus Moonwalked the Mississippi. Shakespeare personifies time, which is our understanding of nature, I think. So I brought her into the play and that elevated the theatricality I had been seeking all along. Then everything began to come alive.”

 

Magical realism is part and parcel of Mason’s works. “So is performativity. I always sit down and ask why my play needs to live on stage? What visual metaphors or conceptual metaphors can we employ that will make this a uniquely stage-appropriate story? So I’m always looking for characters to do some kind of performance. I had a play that I wrote as my senior thesis at Princeton, Orange Woman: A Ballad for a Moor, which was about Shakespeare’s African mistress who was a dancer in Queen Elizabeth’s court. She was a madam of repute in a world of ill repute inLondon. When you take a story about someone owning their own body, of course it’s going to be theatrical and have performativity.”

 

In his mid 20s and with an air of professorship about him, Mason adds some element of the supernatural and the spiritual to his works. “Here’s why: theater has always been a transformative and spiritual experience. Western theater as we know it came out of attempts by the Catholic Church to tell the stories of the Bible to those who couldn’t read. But even before that, of course, the ancient Greeks. And they actually adopted some of their understandings of theater as a community building endeavor from the ancient Egyptians, specifically the Festival of Isis and Osiris.

 

“I think the ritual still exists. We are still in the process of bringing people from different communities, bringing different eras and different cultures together through drama. And I think plays are still sites for rememberment. That’s the job we have to do, I think.”

 

There always must be, he adds, an element of transformation. “That’s because you always want to leave the audience changed somehow so they can proselytize and tell that truth to the next person and the next. That’s what I’m trying to do with drama: how can I take the forgotten moments in remembered time and put them at the forefront of the cultural conversation? There are people who say these things cannot exist and I want to pull them right out of that closet, right out of that shadow, and say not only did he exist or did she live, but they did it brilliantly.”

 

Onion Creek has been extended through December 17, produced by Padua Playwrights in association with Son of Semele. The cast includes Mark Bramhall, Mona Lee Wylde, Bridget Flanery Fownes, David Haley, and Julanne Chidi Hill. June Carryl directs. Ticket information.

 

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