Today is playwright Cheryl L. West's 38th birthday. It has been eight years since the former social worker from Chicago--who chose that profession because of her mother's admonition to always have "something to fall back on"--gave herself "permission to write." And even in taking that risk, West exhibited a hint of her mother's practicality: If she wasn't making a living at it by 35, West planned to relegate writing to the category of a beloved hobby.
"I've always done things on sort of a time schedule," West said by phone from her home in Champaign, Ill., in a breathy, girlish voice that belies her quiet determination. "Like, I have three (academic) degrees, and I've always done it like: 'By this time I'll have this , by this time I'll have that . I've kind of planned things out that way--that way I don't get overwrought as easily.
"I thought it (writing) was something I would always love to do, but I wasn't going to try to make a living at it. But when I turned 35, I was making a living at it," West said, sounding a little surprised even three years later. "So it really did work out."
West's description of her current creative status as "making a living" is modest, to put it mildly.
Her critically acclaimed play "Jar the Floor," a study of four generations of African American women reuniting for the great-grandmother MaDear's 90th birthday, opens Nov. 4 at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory's Second Stage (previews begin Nov. 1) after successful productions at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Arena Stage and Cleveland Play House and New York's Syracuse Stage.
Syracuse Stage also hosted the January premiere of West's "Holiday Heart," the story of a girl from Chicago's South Side being brought up by a drug-addicted mother. "Ms. West is still learning her way about a stage," wrote the New York Times of that production. "But she's already proved herself something of a daredevil, who has no qualms about writing big, gutsy confrontations."
West just sent her newest play, "Puddin' and Pete," a "marriage fable" which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theater, off to the Old Globe, where it is scheduled to open in a revised version sometime next spring.
West's first play, "Before It Hits Home," about the impact of the AIDS crisis on a black family, earned West the 1992 Helen Hayes-Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play produced in Washington, D.C. and several other awards, and has been optioned for a film by Spike Lee. West is also adapting a book for HBO and has a project in development with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. ("It's for film, that's all they'll allow me to say.")
West has observed that while "Jar the Floor" deals with a group of women, and African American women specifically, the play has struck a chord with a diverse audience, and, surprisingly, with men. Like "Holiday Heart," it's a play filled with "big, gutsy confrontations," outrageous characters, and sometimes equally outrageous language. West says she makes it all palatable with a heavy dose of humor. As extreme as her characters sometimes get, she noted that at any given time on stage, at least one of them manages to maintain the voice of reason.
At the Arena Stage, for example, West said many audience members were middle-aged, conservative and Caucasian--but the play hit home nonetheless. "People were trying to bribe my agents, trying to buy a copy, (saying) their therapist said they had to get a copy," she said, laughing.
"MaDear has a very telling line--in her experience, no house is big enough for two women. No house is big enough for two women--and you have four women who have to be there together," West continued.
"I think there are just some universal truths; people are either children, or parents--or both. I think there is something that's in there that people can really relate to, and are trying to reconcile with.
"And I think it is just as moving for men. When you think of an all-women's play, you think it is going to communicate only to women, but I have seen many men come out and be very moved and shaken by it. I think for many men it is like being a voyeur, a fly on the wall: 'Is this the way women talk when men are not around?"'
West said none of the characters on stage represent herself or members of her own family. "Usually, your life is not that interesting, at least not so compelling that people should spend $20 or $30 for a ticket," she said. "What makes something work is the imagination. (People who write their own lives), those are the people who only have one play, or one movie or one book in them," she continued. "What else are you going to offer people? For me, it's important to stay away from your life as much as possible."
O ne aspect of her own life West does want to preserve in her work, however, is a Midwestern sensibility. "I think that certainly there is something about the language you learn when you are from the Midwest or the South," said West, whose family migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. "The way you turn a phrase . . . it's sort of your eyeglasses , the way you see the world."
West intends to continue to see the world from Illinois, thank you. She opted to live in Champaign--home of the University of Illinois, where she received one of her multiple academic degrees--because it was close to her family in Chicago, and offered both a small-town feel and college-town cosmopolitanism. She's amused that people don't see why she would stay.
"Spike Lee asked me that--every time I meet somebody in producing, they are asking, 'What are you doing in Champaign?' And I always tell them: 'Living.' " West laughed. "I'm living on my own terms. I can still do work for people in New York, or Los Angeles, but I can have a style of living that I like. And I think it keeps my voice. I keep it by living the way I want to live.
"I went to New York and met with some producers, and they said: 'She seems so normal .' Part of that (surprise) comes from people who read my work and expect me to be as fiery as the work is. I tend to be a lot calmer. And I think it's because I can make my characters as wild and crazy as I want to, so that keeps me calm. But I think maybe it also has to do with not being part of that rat race, that urban energy."
Whether they are from the East Coast, West Coast, or spaces in between, West hopes audiences will leave the theater and go home to talk to their mothers. "I think that, until you know your mother's history, you really can't forgive her, and if you can't forgive her, you can't end up being friends," West mused. "Every mother was once a daughter--she's not just your mother. That knowledge, I think, is so transforming.
"These women, they were missing pieces that they didn't share with each other. When you start to look at each other as people, not the roles you have been given, there is an opportunity for growth and connection."*
* Cheryl L. West's "Jar the Floor," South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Nov. 4-Dec. 4 (previews Nov. 1-3), $24-$34 (previews $16-$20). (714) 957-4033.