Ed & Jewelle: A Love Story
Stage lights sparkled and a theatre friendship was immediately formed when NCTC Founding Artistic Director Ed Decker met brilliant playwright Jewelle Gomez over a decade ago. Since then, NCTC has produced two of her productions (Waiting for Giovanni in 2011 and Leaving the Blues in 2017) as part of a trilogy highlighting extraordinary African American artists in the 20th century. Unpacking in P’town closes this chapter in March so what better time to look at where it all began?
How did you both meet?
JEWELLE: When I was director of the grantmaking program for the SF Arts Commission my office was across the hall from NCTC. Ed used to drop by my tiny space and we’d have rollicking conversations about art and politics. And I used to sneak into the student matinees!
ED: Believe it or not, Jewelle also worked in the basement of 25 Van Ness when the San Francisco Arts Commision offices were down here. Her office was adjacent to Suite 70 which is now a storage closet! We found each other and talked often about the challenges and joys of making art. We became fast friends.
What was your first experience at NCTC?
JEWELLE: I went to a presentation for students of a play about a friend of Anne Frank, Eva Schloss, who’d survived life in a concentration camp. She was there to talk w/the students. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. The young people were often surprised by the deep emotions flooding them as they connected with the young woman trying to survive atrocities in the play and then understanding Eva Schloss was a real person was the best gift for the youth who’d made such a major emotional journey. It showed me exactly what I wanted to do with my writing.
How did the idea for this trilogy start?
JEWELLE: I was working on the play about James Baldwin with my friend Harry Waters Jr when Ed heard me read a monologue from it. As we worked with the cast I wanted them to know that their characters were based on real people who’d been milestones in the literary and political lives of African Americans, so we often had photos of Baldwin, Hansberry etc.around. That started me thinking about how significant artists were to the Civil Rights Movement specifically and to human rights movements in general. So I wanted to write a set of plays that honoured the artists and their personal paths as queers and their influence over our community’s survival.
ED: Jewelle was in the early stages of working on the first play in the trilogy Waiting for Giovanni about James Baldwin. She invited me to a house party where there was a reading of a few of the initial scenes. I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I offered up the idea of NCTC being a home for the play and eventually plays.
Have there been any standout moments during your time working together?
JEWELLE: Every moment at NCTC has been a unique gift to me. It is almost unimaginable for an out lesbian of colour writing about QPOC to find a home theatre! Ed’s welcome into NCTC has been emotional for me. He has the perfect touch for encouraging me to enter what could be an alien territory and at the same time treating me like a professional he cares about. Every time I enter the space for a reading, a rehearsal or a performance my heart beats a little faster knowing how rare a moment I’m experiencing. NCTC is about creating community and our art helping people inch forward in our consciousness; that’s what I’ve spent my life trying to do.
ED: Our professional partnership and our friendship just keeps blossoming. The love for the work along with the affection we share as friends fuels the mutual respect we have for one another. Honestly, it has brought too many joyful moments to even count.
What is it that makes Jewelle’s voice so unique?
JEWELLE: One of the things that often annoys me in media is that queer people and QPOC are often portrayed as if we dropped in from outer space. We have no history or community context but exist as only adjuncts to the primary heterosexuals. I love writing in our history which includes the many communities we’ve touched and been touched by. The complexity of context is how others are able to see themselves in us when they experience a character on stage. Also I’m older (75 yo) so I think I’m an old fashioned writer; I love plot and narrative and how specific language expresses us.
ED: Her voice and writing style is quite poetic and lyrical. Her words wrap themselves around the characters and the audience with great warmth. At the same time, Jewelle is unafraid to tackle the harder edges of life such as racism and injustice. Her work centers the vision, experience and contributions of Black artists.
Now that this closing play in the trilogy takes the stage, what’s next for Jewelle and NCTC?
JEWELLE: l may suffer some withdrawal symptoms so if NCTC staff see me haunting the hall they should just ignore me! I am returning to the sequel of my vampire novel so my next play is several years in the future. But I hope I can be supportive to NCTC projects; whether working w/playwrights or promoting the work. Whatever Ed thinks up I’ll do it.
ED: That is a good question! Right now we are just keenly focused on bringing Unpacking in PTown to the stage. I am sure there is more in store down the road. What comes after a Trilogy? A Quatrology?