Playwright Lydia Diamond’s miracle year

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday January 13, 2010

Playwright Lydia Diamond's five year old son, Baylor, had consumed a few too many candy canes. He was in the midst of what she called a "post-Christmas buzz," or sugar-high, as she attempted to settle in to talk about her play, Harriet Jacobs, currently at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge, until January 31. Soon Baylor found alternative diversions, giving Ms. Diamond a chance to reflect on what might be called a year of miracles.

She pulled up stakes from Chicago and moved to Boston a few years ago when her husband, John Diamond, joined the Harvard faculty. If the move was disruptive - she had already achieved a growing national reputation with her work at the Goodman and other Chicago-area theaters - she did not seem rattled. Within a year or so, the puzzle pieces of her life as a playwright have come together in remarkable ways as she has claimed Boston as her home.

Finding her way

"I was lucky to find my way into the theatre community in Boston, "she said. "I was hired at Boston University, I became a fellow at the Huntington Theatre, I hired an agent, and my career fell into place."

In truth, her writing career had already been building steam before she and her family relocated to Boston. She had been an actress during her student days at Northwestern, and ventured into the uncertain playwriting waters with productions at small theatres in the Chicago-area, including an adaptation of the work of feisty poet Nikki Giovanni called Here I Am...See You Can Handle It. This led to working with the Goodman Theatre, to the Steppenwolf Theatre, and to commissions of her work for the stage.

"I started out as an actress, but I realized I am a playwright," she said, "and with that recognition of my role comes an understanding of the responsibilities as an artist to tell the stories I think need to be told."

She found one of those stories in a slim history volume published by Skip Gates, the Harvard professor, who had published an annotated edition of the true story of a slave girl, Harriet Jacobs, and how she hid in a crawl space for seven years, watching her children come of age under the care of her grandmother. Titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diamond retells her story in her words, rather than presenting Jacobs’ narrative as a history play. It is being presented by the Underground Railway Theatre, under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, in collaboration with artists from the Providence Black Repertory Company.

Putting slavery into context

"What surprises me is that the topic of slavery is, after all these years, not fully understood or put into context in our time, " Diamond said. "What we get, once a year during Black History month, is the perspective of slavery and its consequences through the media, and it is really a watered-down one, and it usually focuses on Harriet Tubman. When it was presented by the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the students who attended the production often remarked that they didn’t know about slavery, and they were surprised at the telling of this true story. And that reaction surprised me."

For Diamond, the play has similarities to another historical figure, that of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who was forced into hiding in an attic with her family during the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. While the publication of Anne’s diary made her a posthumous global heroine, the publication of Harriet Jacobs’ account of her ordeals did not achieve such notoriety.

For Boston-area audiences, the telling of Harriet Jacobs story also draws attention to her local roots. After her escape from slavery, Jacobs - who only produced a single volume published in 1861 under a pseudonym that described her experiences -- spent several years running a boarding house for Harvard students. The site of that home is marked on the Cambridge African-American Heritage Trail. She died in 1897 at the age of 84. The inscription on her gravestone, in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, reads: "Patient in tribulation, fervent in serving the Lord."

"Another thing that surprised me about the production was that it took place just as Obama got the nomination," Diamond said, "and kids attending the show from all over Chicago were enthralled with that, but also sobered by it in context with slavery, and the story of what had happened in our history. They kept asking aloud, ’How could this happen?’ and ’Could this happen again?’"

If Lydia Diamond speaks with the calm determination, it is because she is a writer who has found her mission in the theatre, and has found others who believe in her mission. Nowhere is there evidence of a swelling ego, despite her many successes. She does not crow about her achievements, but states them matter-of-factly, seeing them as steps she must take along the path of works in progress.

She is appreciative of her gifts and if she is understated about them, it is because she knows that they come from the purposeful application of effort, not handed down by capricious muses. She mentions, almost casually, that in February 2010 the Huntington Theatre in Boston, at the Calderwood Pavillion, is producing her play Stick Fly, which the Chicago Tribune called "an impressively ambitious play," and the Huntington’s Peter DuBois calls "trailblazing." She, however, refers to it, and to the forthcoming production of Harriet Jacobs, as a chance for Boston audiences to "hear the two voices of Lydia Diamond."

But now Lydia Diamond must tend to another voice, this one belonging to her five year old son Baylor, and to the tasks of being a mother.

Harriet Jacobs plays at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Avenue in Cambridge, Thursday, January 7 through Sunday, January 31. For more information visit Central Square Theater

For information about Stick Fly, visit Huntington Theatre website.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.

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