American Dreams

Institute History

  • 1997 Theatre Lab


I experienced Sapphire read her poem, “Autopsy Report 86-13504” in front of an audience. It was extraordinary. She was one person, yet her rendering of the business of her brother’s death by murder was paralyzing. As I listened to the story unfold, I began to see the coroner, the girlfriend, the teacher, and most of all Michael and his sister the storyteller. Then AMERICAN DREAMS was published in 1994. Between its covers was indeed a ‘high risk’ collection of narrative poetry and prose, including “Autopsy Report 86-13504.” In another poem, “where jimi is,” the sister is haunted by the sense that Michael’s soul is not at rest. She urges him to go and find his place – the place he could not find here in this life. In yet another poem, “California Dreamin,” Sapphire questions the state of that very soul just before Michael was murdered. I began to see an arc for a staged rendering of Sapphire’s work – an entire story was forming about a brother and a sister. When I’d finished reading the book, I realized that amidst their story existed a searing thread of sexual abuse by their father which bonded them inextricably. In addition, behind them lay a disturbing panorama of American contradiction – a panorama which in turn connected them to all other oppressed Americans. The arc for a staged work became clear. It occurred to me to extract the narrative poems and to examine them in terms of this brother and sister and the current events which painted the backdrop of their lives. The exploration began with just two poems, “Autopsy Report 86-13504” and “where jimi is.” Without changing a single comma, ellipse or italicization in Sapphire’s work, I simply scripted the poems by assigning characters to the perspectives which lived in the words – providing a departure from the monologue format – as well as, inlaying stage directions to create a three-dimensional world around them. Leaving the author’s phrasing and form intact, I was able to treat the text as I would a libretto, and the actors as a chorus of voices telling a story musically – sometimes in unison, sometimes splintering and dissonant, while at other times a collective background supporting a solo voice – and at all times attentive to phrasing. This initial part of the project was presented at New York Theatre Workshop in 1996 to a wonderful reception. At the Sundance Lab, I will continue my work on this adaptation for the stage, structuring the poems in such a way as to render an allegory of the American Dream as it has been perceived and lived by the poet Sapphire.
–Jaye Austin-Williams

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