Know Your Roots

December 28, 2009

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

“Write what you know” is an old adage in the theatre, and it’s probably the reason so many of our country’s worthy playwrights excel at writing stories about their family. Tennessee Williams gave us the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie; Eugene O’Neill the Tyrones in Long Days Journey Into Night; and our own Bruce Graham the Burks in his first great play, Burkie. I’ve never met Tanya Barfield, the acclaimed author of Blue Door, currently in rehearsals for a January opening here at the Arden, but if I do get the chance, the first think I’ll ask her is how she wrote such a darn good play about people she doesn’t know.

The main character’s dilemma in Blue Door, you see, is that he has no real understanding of the history of his own family. And his lack of understanding may cost him his wife and his integrity, not to mention a good night’s sleep. Yet Lewis’ problem – and Barfield’s by extension – is a common one for African Americans. Whereas Williams, O’Neil and Graham would have had enough information to write not only about themselves but about their parents, grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, Barfield may have been hard-pressed to find actual historical information about her own ancestors to draw upon in creating Simon and Jesse, the ghosts of Lewis’ lineage who visit him in this play.

Alex Haley believed he was descended from the slave Kunta Kinte, but in spite of years of copious research and travel, he still had to posit Roots, the ostensible history of his own family, as a work of imagination. Today’s scientists have made giant leaps forward in the study of genealogy that might have helped Haley with his research. But anyone looking to DNA testing for answers still needs historical evidence to help pinpoint the origins of their family tree. (For more on the challenges – and successes – African Americans are now having in combining science and history in the search for their lineage, check out this link to African American Lives, a program that aired on PBS in 2006 and was hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

My family is Jewish, and I am only three generations removed from life in Teplick, a shtetl (or small village) in the Ukraine. My great-aunt had the foresight to record the histories of her older sisters before they passed away, and I now have a written document chronicling their immigration to Brooklyn and later Philadelphia (reading it is kind of like watching Fiddler on the Roof without songs). It’s a great thing to have, but it still only takes me back as far as 1900. My roommate’s mother (of English descent) once told me she had papers documenting her family’s arrival in Virginia when it was still a colony. She can trace her roots back past the 1700s.

As much as any of us may know about our family, there will always be things we can’t know. Yet the desire to seek out one’s roots appears to be universal, and it’s a driving force behind Blue Door. It’s also a testament to Barfield’s prowess as a playwright that she could write what she knows by writing what she doesn’t know.

Which kind of makes me wonder – if you’ll excuse the digression – how did the other Arden playwright of the moment, J. M. Barrie, write the geography of Neverland if he didn’t really know it? Hmmm…

One Response

  1. Andrew Kushner says:

    While looking around this morning for any information on my ancestors, I came upon your post. My grandparents, Benjamin and Rachel Kushner came from Teplik in 1900 and settled in Philadelphia. From what I could see online, at that time there were only about 3000 Jews in the Shtetl so it is possible that another landsman might have known them. I don’t know if any of your family history relates to my family but I am searching where I can. I am located in S. Jersey, Gibbsboro.

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