The Strange Journey of Bringing Lillian Smith’s ‘Strange Fruit’ Back to Life

Posted by | October 17, 2014

Reviving a Play That Was Ahead of It’s Time and Long Thought Lost

Thom Fogarty (c) Anja HirtzenbergerPlease welcome guest author Thom Fogarty. Fogarty, a director, playwright and producer, is currently the Artistic Director of 360repco. Thom was a dancer/choreographer in NYC’s ”downtown” modern dance scene for over 30 years. He began directing in 2010. To date he has directed 13 showcase code productions (including Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief, and Lulu Fogarty’s Lillian Smith: Being Heard), producing 7 of them. One has toured to 7 Fringe Festivals in the U.S. and Canada. This year he secured the rights from Carole Bayer Sager to create The Carole Bayer Sager Project: Album One, a cabaret song for song of her first solo album, presented at The Duplex and Judson Church, NYC. In August he directed and produced the Off Broadway run of Lancelot, his third collaboration with the playwright Steven Fechter (The Woodsman – stage and screen).

 

BACKGROUND

Lillian E. Smith (December 12, 1897 – September 28, 1966) was a writer born and raised in Jasper, FL. For many years she served as the director of the Laurel Falls Camp for girls in Clayton, GA. She was an unapologetic Southern liberal who took controversial stances on matters of race and gender inequalities, at a time that brought her much social discomfort, as she bucked the Jim Crow laws that were still very much alive. She is currently part of the Southern Literary Trail, with her brilliant, ahead of their time works on race and Southern tradition. Her works include Strange Fruit (1944), Killers of the Dream (1949), The Journey (1954), Now Is the Time (1955), and the collection – How Am I To Be Heard? :Letters of Lillian Smith (1993).

One of her most famous writings was the 1944 novel Strange Fruit, which depicted an interracial romance, between a Negro college-educated woman and a White man from a prominent family in a small Southern town, that ends in murder and a lynching. Riding the wave of excitement that attended the largest selling book by a woman to date, Broadway came calling and she rather quickly adapted the novel into a play.

It began a whirlwind tour, opening in Montreal, then Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia, before arriving in New York City and opening at the Royale Theatre on Broadway, on November 29, 1945.

Broadway production of 'Strange Fruit.'

Broadway production of ‘Strange Fruit.’

The arduous task of trimming over one hour from her original vision (which is the script that opened in Montreal and the one I used—more about that later), along with the daily demands for rewrites by the director, Jose Ferrer, and his co-producer, Arthur S. Friend, left Ms. Smith with a rather sour impression of the commercial aspects of the theatrical world.

In retrospect, it was a fast moving train that Lillian was asked to jump on, with the constant changes and ever shifting demands of the rotating cavernous sets (which recreated spot-on black and white sections of a small southern town), in addition to her perceived resentment by the stagehands, it is no wonder she became less and less enthused about the original production.

The play had the misfortune of opening less than a month after another interracial romance play, Deep Are The Roots (by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow), which starred Barbara Bel Geddes as a Mississippi woman who falls in love with her cook, a Negro war veteran.

Strange Fruit’s reviews were mixed. Lillian felt that the liberal critics and stage unions had it in for her, because of her anti-Communist stance in some of her earlier writings and appearances. Lillian felt the stagehands purposely sabotaged her show and recounted as much in Autobiographical Narrative, saying that the actors saw stagehands intentionally drop large pieces of the set during performances, slow down scene changes and make their presence known in other ways in attempts to distract the performance.

“The girl should have been white,” she stated, “for of course that is the Commie line.” (Autobiographical Narrative). In Carson McCullers, Lillian Smith and the Politics of Broadway, Judith Giblin James said “She no doubt referred to the tendency of socialist fiction and art to portray the proletariat as masculine – downtrodden, but innately strong, and the bourgeoisie as feminine – effete and emasculated.”

'Strange Fruit' Broadway playbill cover.

Strange Fruit‘ Broadway playbill cover.

After a total of 60 performances, the Broadway production closed on January 19, 1946, and Ms. Smith was swift to pronounce that Strange Fruit was to never again be produced. That was 69 years ago.

And true to her word, her literary agents and the Estate have never allowed it to be produced. They have been approached on numerous occasions over the years for the rights to either produce or write new treatments, and turned down all but three.

First, a new play based on the book, by Jeff Lewis, which was ‘shopped around’ as both a play and possible screenplay, has yet to be either published or produced. Second, an opera based on the book that premiered June 15, 2007, composed by Chandler Carter with libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin and commissioned for the Long Leaf Opera Festival in Chapel Hill, NC. And lastly, the only known copy of the Broadway script still available to the public, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, was included in the anthology Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women (Indiana University Press 1998, Edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens).

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

While attending Syracuse University for drama, my daughter, Lulu Fogarty, came across one of Lillian’s articles in the textbook for a class on intellectual writings. As Lulu says “Lillian spoke to me in a way I had not known before.” Using Lillian Smith’s own words to tell Lillian’s story in a unique and uncompromising way by updating it through her own experiences, Lulu wrote a one-woman show Lillian Smith: Being Heard, which demonstrates both how much and how little has changed – when it comes to our obsession with the other.

With the script completed we came to the Lillian E. Smith Foundation to obtain the rights to use Ms. Smith’s words. Lulu was granted the rights to continue to perform her piece, as well as given open access to the Smith archives, housed at the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In dealing with the Foundation, which then handled all affairs of the estate, I began to have conversations with the current executor and Lillian’s niece, Nancy Smith Fichter, about the disposition of the play Strange Fruit. She reiterated what she had known – that it was still not allowed to be produced for public performances.

Lulu Fogarty in her one woman show 'Lillian Smith: Being Heard'.

Lulu Fogarty in her one woman show ‘Lillian Smith: Being Heard’.

However, she had always thought it could and should be done again, under the right circumstances. So, it seemed there was a possibility—but the fact remained, “the play was never to be performed again.”

That was until some sleuthing in the Lillian Smith Archives, in the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, changed everything. With the help of my wife, Leslie Dennis (yes, it is now a family affair!), who has been an archivist at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, we spent the next two summers going through the Smith Archives, both at the Hargrett and in the closet of Lillian’s cottage (which has been preserved at the Center). What we discovered in letters from Esther Smith and Annie Peeler, who both held the position of executor during the estate years, was a true find in both honoring what had long been held as Lillian’s wishes, and in allowing us to go forward.

In response to a letter dated May 29, 1990, from Professor Judith Haig, who was working on a book-length study about American novels turned into plays, Esther Smith wrote:

My sister, Lillian, did not want the play of Strange Fruit circulated in any way. She was not happy with the version produced on Broadway. It was not the dramatization she originally wrote (that version was lost when her home burned). This being her first venture on Broadway, she listened to the urgency of the producer and director to change and rewrite scenes. In fact she was writing up until the opening of the Broadway run. It turned out to be heavily realistic and an enormously expensive production, and it actually died of overweight. The best reviews complimented the author on the beauty of the lines, which were taken verbatim from the novel.

Lillian talked with me a couple of years later about the play. She said if she did it again, she would do it so differently. She said that the heart of the plot would come directly from the novel, but would lead one to consider the greater problems of hate and separation which exist in the world at large. She felt the play could be a symbol of universal tragedy rather than just a melodramatic specific situation in a small southern town. I did not ask her how she would do this, but knowing my sister I knew she could do it, if the so-called ‘professionals’ would leave her alone.

You see, Ms. Haig, Lillian and I were novices thrust too quickly into the midst of “old Broadway hands”. We did not have the experience or courage to fight for what we wanted. We knew the play would necessitate many different scenes, so we dreamed of settings that were almost skeletal facades so that the lighting and action could flow smoothly and quickly from scene to scene. We felt the words were so important that the action should move like music. ‘They’ thought this idea was unusual and no doubt a little crazy and completely unworkable. So the curtain went up on beautiful realistic sets which were heavy and unwieldy, taking forever to change. In order to manipulate the sets at all an old turntable which squeaked was used. My sister and I were sick about it, but we had no control over backstage.

…It would take the art and craft of a playwright plus a producer and director all with vision and compassion.

And in a letter from Annie Laurie Peeler, then Literary Executor to the Estate, to Lillian’s agent, Evva Pryor, at McIntosh and Otis, Inc., dated June 9, 2000, Ms. Peeler stated:

As far as the 1944 agreement with José Ferrer and Arthur Friend, I have not seen a copy of the agreement. The play opened in Montreal in October 1945 and moved from there to Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia before opening at the Royale Theater on Broadway on November 29th. The run on Broadway ended January 19, 1946. I also know that Lil later told Esther that she did not want the play produced again as written. She liked the original play (a copy of which we cannot find). Esther’s copy and the one in the New York Public Library are one of those that were changed almost daily even after hitting Broadway and Lil disliked it.

A NEW LIFE

Which brings me to this adaptation and today. Thanks to the sleuthing and working from a copy of a manuscript found in Esther Smith’s archive, which she claimed, in her own handwriting, was a copy of the original that could be found “in Lillian’s hamper”, I have redacted as closely as possible from the original, while incorporating Lillian’s handwritten suggestions and changes.

This is in no way the same script that was produced and opened on Broadway at the Royale Theater in New York, and thus fits the parameters set down by Lillian Smith herself.

Part of what made Ms. Smith hide this incredible indictment of a period of our not-so-distant past was forced upon her by the economic nature of commercial theater. While some of what she encountered was indeed due to the subject matter and our collective discomfort in dealing with such matters, this work proves to be as volatile and relevant today as it was in 1945.

I am pleased to present this as the original work of Lillian Smith, with minor alterations to make it more producible for a modern audience. And it is with great pleasure that we restored the original name that it first opened under – Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit.

I made changes taken directly from her handwritten notes on pages of the script, or in letters, or on papers that she filed away (such as restoring the Prologue; it had become a flashback – think memory play in the style of Tennessee Williams – by the time it opened on Broadway; and the Epilogue to their right places). The only other change has been to make it playable by an ensemble of eight actors instead of the original 36.

Lilian Smith's writing desk.

Lilian Smith’s writing desk.

In making this a more viable production for regional and community theaters, I felt the need to recast this piece for 8 actors. As a result there are several very fast changes of character, but this only makes it more exciting for actor, director, and yes, the audience as well. This updating calls for 4 white actors and 4 actors of color. I feel it is necessary to keep this directive, as the dual casting only enhances Lillian’s efforts in pushing color-blindness in all aspects of life. In this case it is needed to make the very point she so hoped would one day be obliterated.

I have deleted many of the original directives, as I know being a director, it is much more exciting to discover these aspects on one’s own with the cast and designers. We are in a different time from when Lillian originally worked – which was the heyday of Eugene O’Neill (whom she clearly admired – she copied his style of overly abundant descriptions of the mise en scene), the beginnings of Tennessee Williams and that other soon to be very famous southern writer, Lillian Hellman.

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

This new work has the blessing of the Lillian Smith Foundation and its Board, which since last year has become part of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College, as I have been given the go ahead with pursuing publication. I have sent the script to the Samuel French publishing house, and they are waiting for it to actually be produced before making a commitment.

The planned production by Piedmont College, in Demorest, GA, in October of 2015, should go a long way in helping get this exciting work back on the boards – where it belongs. As 2015 will be the 70th Anniversary of the original Broadway production, it seems fitting that this vital indictment of our life and times, that has been kept from production due to a misunderstanding of Lillian Smith’s wish and her well-known displeasure with her one and only Broadway foray, will live and give yet another generation hope.

The Swanson Center for Performing Arts & Communications at Piedmont College in Demorest, GA will host the new 'Strange Fruit' production.

The Swanson Center for Performing Arts & Communications at Piedmont College in Demorest, GA will host the new ‘Strange Fruit‘ production.

As Lillian Smith’s popularity is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to her inclusion in numerous syllabuses for Southern Literature, Women’s Studies, and Gender Studies courses, it is time for this amazing play to takes its place in the pantheon of works that were ahead of their time. As a southern woman she took on race and gender politics well before they were popular or being discussed. She was an original.

In full disclosure, I have promised the Lillian Smith Foundation that the publication deal I will be seeking is for 95% of the proceeds to be earmarked for the Lillian Smith Foundation, so they may continue the work of keeping her legacy alive for generations to come.

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