By Anne E. Johnson
When I first moved to New York a couple of decades ago, I studied and worked with a tap dancer/choreographer named Margaret Morrison. Over the years she’s added playwriting and acting to her cache of impressive skills.
Today I’m delighted to catch up with Morrison as she celebrates her current project, Home in Her Heart. She kindly agreed to share the fascinating story behind her play with music. Her passion for this work is evident in her words.
(Photo Keith Gemerek)
Home In Her Heart,
a play by Margaret Morrison
At Stage Left Studio, NYC, through April 19, 2015
Click here for tickets.
Busker Alley: Why write this particular story?
Margaret Morrison: Home In Her Heart is a love story between Claire Hicks, an African-American jazz pianist, and her lover, white drag-king Jimmie LeRoy, who plies the boards in their nightclub act as a tap dancing male-impersonator. The play begins in 1939 London, just as Americans have been ordered out to escape the impending outbreak of World War II. As Jimmie (played by me) and Claire (played by Ava Jenkins) pack to leave, the specter of U.S. Jim Crow segregation looms. The women confront their fears around remaining safely closeted while living close to family, and are forced to deal with issues of racism and homophobia in their love affair they have never addressed.
I started writing plays so I could say more on stage. I’ve been a rhythm tap dancer since the 1980s. As a white, female tap dancer, immersed in the jazz tradition, I have always felt very keenly how audiences read gender, race, sexuality, and all types of meaning on my body when I get up to perform. I was tired of my noisy silence and felt desperate to verbalize ideas that were present anyway in my performance.
Margaret Morrison and Ava Jenkins in Home in Her Heart at Stage Left Studio. (Video still: Karin Kearns)
I chose these two characters at this moment in history in order to explore the complex ways that race, sexuality, and gender intersect with tap and jazz. Jimmie and Claire must fight to understand whether their relationship is worth saving because Jimmie does not realize that she has white privilege and Claire must deal with the ways her politics of respectability fuel her own internalized homophobia. These are complex, personal issues that fascinate and dog me and I do not feel that we are talking enough about them as a culture. I am also eager to see women on stage who have been invisible: strong, sexy women in love, who must negotiate impossible circumstances.
BA: What is the role of dance and music in this piece?
MM: I am a dancer first. Dance informs everything in my life. On an aesthetic level, this play is a polyrhythmic, jazz duet. Like tap, many themes interlock simultaneously. At times, each player is the leader and a follower. The arc of the play and the dramatic tension stem from the two characters, who, like jazz soloists, grapple with honoring their individual strengths without stepping all over the other or pulling the relationship apart.
Jazz music and dance give Claire and Jimmie a deep connection to each other, are the sources of their individual strengths, and define their changing relationship to the world in this moment of crisis. Claire is a talented pianist who has had limited opportunities as a black woman. Music is an essential tool for her to insure dignity and respect in a racist society. Jimmie uses dance to express her masculinity as a tap dancing male impersonator. There are several nightclub scenes with tap dancing and an original piano score (recorded by Cynthia Hilts). Jimmie lives for the stage, which was her ticket out of poverty and family rejection, but as she packs to return to the U.S. she knows her performing career is over. By 1939 male impersonators were out of fashion and “no one’s hiring an old dancer.”
BA: Does your background in dance and choreography affect your approach to playwriting?
MM: Absolutely. As a playwright, I choreograph the relationship between the characters.
Margaret Morrison dances in Home in Her Heart as Ava Jenkins looks on. (Video still: Karin Kearns)
The text drives a lot of non-verbal meaning on stage, which illustrates the intimate power play of the two women interacting in love or anger. We’ve received some lovely audience and reviewer feedback on director Cheryl King’s staging and the visual imagery of our bodies in space, our positioning and energies of high/low, near/far, active/still, soft/hard. As actors, both Ava Jenkins and I worked on the choreography of how the characters live in their bodies. I had to practice Jimmie’s every day, relaxed embodiment of butch masculinity.
Costume changes (many in front of the audience), nakedness, or the ways we don’t reveal our bodies are also choreographed. In the nightclub scenes, each woman performs gender, straightness, and race in very calculated ways to insure safety and respect. The script illustrates the potent moments women touch and do not touch in public. These scenes are a queer dance of safety and desire that any non-straight person knows intimately.
BA: In your research, did you get a sense that Claire and Jimmie’s type of situation was unique, or is there evidence that it was more common than one might expect?
MM: Before I wrote this play, I had no information about interracial lesbian relationships in the 1930s. I still have only one: Gladys Bentley, famous cross-dressing African-American nightclub performer, called now “the bulldagger who sang the blues,” was reported in the 1930s to have “married” her wife, a white chorus dancer, in Atlantic City. I started with the assumption that women like Jimmie and Claire MUST have existed—women who were not famous and not protected by wealth—and I formulated a premise for how they may have met and lived, and the pressures on them. The gay and lesbian closet is so air-tight, so carefully constructed because life and death depend on it, that the utter lack of evidence is, to me in fact, evidence that these relationships were feasible.
The wave of research since the 1970s that has illuminated and recovered lesbian herstory and gay history has given us some personal anecdotes of interracial lesbian or gay couples who lived in the 1950s and later. But it is VERY hard to find any information about lesbian relationships before then, for VERY good reasons. Ordinary queer women and men would have functioned under the radar, kept their love lives secret, or suffered horrific consequences. A lesbian could be locked in jail, or declared insane by her husband or family, or lose her children, not to mention endure violence, the public humiliations of not being able to get work, being ostracized, or called a pervert.
There are hints of gay life from the rich or famous, such as early 20th century, wealthy white lesbians in Greenwich Village, or the African-American gay and lesbian and bi-sexual culture, writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. I found information on straight, interracial relationships of the 1930s after I had written the first draft. Choreographer Katherine Dunham was married to a white man. Carla Kaplan’s book Miss Anne in Harlem deals with the history of white women who were involved with African-American culture and influential in the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom were married black men.
I plan to do more research, but one of the lovely things about theater is that my job as a playwright is to suspend disbelief, and as an actor I bring truthful behaviors to imaginary circumstances. I believe women like Jimmie and Claire existed, and my audiences tell me they’re able to believe it as well.
BA: What do you hope audiences will gain by seeing Home in Her Heart?
MM: Oh, so many things! I want audiences to see lesbians on stage who are hot, funny and courageous. I hope people will laugh at the funny parts, cry at the sad, enjoy tap dance and jazz, and know that love is stronger than hatred. I do hope people will leave with a sense that racism and homophobia are problems for all of us. We all walk with privileges that create separate, but unequal, realities. I wrote the play so that audiences could see the closet from the inside, but know how resourceful and inventive queers can be. Yes the closet is horrible, but there is hope inside and love thrived.
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Many thanks to Margaret Morrison for sharing her time and words so generously. Remember, Home in Her Heart runs through April 19, and you can buy tickets here.