Judyann Elder and the play “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” go back a long, long way.
“It was first done at the Negro Ensemble Company in 1969, and I was a member then. That’s where I met Lonne,” noted the actress/director, who’s married to the playwright, Lonne Elder III. The story, set in 1964 Harlem, focuses on an ex-vaudevillian and his three adult children--and the various means they adopt to avoid the reality of their condition: “It’s the rituals they go through daily, the dances they do in order to survive. For me, the theme is that poverty--whether it’s brought on by racism, sexism or ageism--destroys.”
“Ceremonies” opens Sunday under her direction at the Beverly Canon Theatre, officially honoring Black History Month. (The cast includes Edmund Cambridge, Teddy Wilson, Taurean Blacque and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.)
An ironic choice to celebrate black history, given that 19 years after its debut, many of the same dismal conditions remain?
“Yes, it’s a sad statement,” Elder said, “but on the other hand, it speaks of the incredible energy, the very specialness of black people to survive. And that’s the aspect that’s so hopeful.”
The tagging of it as a “black work” is less so.
“When this play was first done in New York,” she said, “Lonne’s writing was compared to that of Sean O’Casey. The play, as I understand it, was chosen to be done for Black History Month because it’s considered an American classic. An American classic by a black author. It’s definitely about the black experience--I mean, it’s his point of view. But that doesn’t, in any way, mitigate its universal aspect.”
Elder, a bright, self-possessed woman, is far less enamored of the current status of blacks in the industry.
“It’s not fine,” she said. “We have a long way to go in terms of the way black people are portrayed. Not only are the images (often) negative and exploitative, they’re not from us. That starts with the source: writers, then directors. I’m not saying all of our images are beautiful and rosy and upstanding and wholesome, but they have to be ours . And the plight of women in this industry is abominable. Abominable.” She sighed.
“There are a lot of talented black actors and nobody knows who they are. What happens in this industry is that they find one . It’s like the flavor of the month. For years, it was Cicely (Tyson). Now it seems to be either Oprah (Winfrey) or Alfre Woodard, Whoopi (Goldberg) if you want some jokes. It should be a wider spectrum, cover a whole territory. Obviously things are better than they were 20 years ago, but what does that mean? I can’t think of a single black woman who has directed a feature film who’s not an independent. Can you?”
Elder (who got her directing push from Robert Greenwald, who cast her as Coretta King opposite Billy Dee Williams’ Martin Luther King in the Broadway production of “I Have a Dream”) wants to break that barrier herself. This summer she’ll direct a 30-minute film for the American Film Institute’s Director’s Workshop for Women. She hopes her husband (who wrote the screenplay for “Sounder” and will venture to New York this spring with his new play, “Splendid Mummer,” on 19th-Century actor Ira Aldridge) will do the screenplay and that her pal Susan Albert Loewenberg (of L.A. Theatre Works) will produce.
“Sometimes you have to create your own situations,” Elder said briskly. “So I formed a production company; we started off with the play ‘The Book of the Crazy African.’ And we’ve optioned a new play by Jeff Stetson, who wrote a play I directed last year at Crossroads called ‘The Meeting’ . . . “
She clearly relishes the activity. “I love to work. I’m at my best when I work. I don’t have to diet; I burn it all off. And I like being responsible. I’m used to it at home: ‘Mom, where’s my everything ?’ ” At the mention of her children, the pictures proudly emerge from her date book: stepson David, 24, Christian, 17, and Loni-Christine, 8.
“My son was born in New York. (Living there) lasted about a month,” said Elder, an Ohio native herself (and a graduate of Emerson College). “We realized we could not raise a child there. I’m very lucky. We have nice kids--I mean that. They’re nice people.”
In general, though, she worries about today’s youngsters. “Our society is so ‘me'-oriented. We’re into disposable things--disposable marriages, disposable people. You don’t have to have a conscience because everything is done for you. You sit in front of a video and say, ‘Do it to me.’ If you can’t invest yourself, how can you have any compassion? And in terms of the black experience, there’s a whole generation that doesn’t really know who Martin Luther King is: ‘Oh, he made speeches, he did something for civil rights, we get out of school.’ There is no sense of history.”