“The ‘Shape’ of Memory” – Celia Wren

History has not fondly remembered the 1895 extravaganza Black America. Who can wonder? This musical celebration of antebellum Southern plantation culture, mounted in Brooklyn with 500 performers, was a valentine to (as a contemporary New York Timesarticle put it) the “fun-loving darky of old slavery days.”

When playwright Erik Ehn stumbled across a reference to the show, he was intrigued to learn that the cast had included notable African-American entertainers Billy and Cordelia McClain. The minstrel-show overtones of Black America, the near-oblivion that has overtaken the one-prominent married McClains, the indications that Billy McClain may have been in Tulsa during the notorious 1921 Tulsa Race Riot—for Ehn, these factors aligned the couple’s story with “Soulographie,” his cycle of genocide-themed plays. “Genocide is not just killing,” Ehn says. “It’s the enforcement of historical obscurity or the forbidding of a people to constitute themselves in a sustainable memory.”

Ehn riffs on the McClains’ biographies in Shape, a lyrical, fantasy-laced new “Soulographie” installment created in collaboration with force/collision, an ensemble based in Washington, D.C. A workshop production will air July 5-8 at Politheatrics 2012, a devised-work festival presented by Burning Coal Theatre Company, in Raleigh, N.C. Then, after a September opening at D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, Shape will travel in November to New York’s La Mama E.T.C., there to run in repertory with Maria Kizito(about the Rwandan genocide), Thistle (about a massacre in El Salvador) and the 14 other “Soulographie” dramas. “If somebody experiences big sweeps of ‘Soulographie,’” Ehn hypothesizes, “they should get the same story from different angles.”

Force/collision founder John Moletress, who is directing Shape, appreciates the chance to be part of the La Mama “Soulographie” marathon. “It’s important for its scope,” he says. But he also enjoys Shape as a stand-alone piece. Referring to the layers of hallucinatory imagery that Ehn has been known to drape over historical facts, Moletress says, “I really love working on Erik’s plays, because they give me a chance to be an archeologist.”