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'Women of Brewster Place' Is Put to Music
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'Women of Brewster Place' Is Put to Music

Performing Arts

'Women of Brewster Place' Is Put to Music

'Women of Brewster Place' Is Put to Music
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Gloria Naylor's 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, is now a musical. The story is about how a series of misfortunes, wrong turns and hard choices unites a group of black women. Director Molly Smith and actress Tina Fabrique talk about how they chose to make this story, with its baggage of tough topics and stereotypes, into a musical.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for the next big thing. A masterful novel turned television miniseries is coming to the stage as a musical.

(Soundbite of musical, "The Women of Brewster Place")

MARTIN: A series of misfortunes, wrong turns and hard choices leads a group of black women to come together in a place of desperation and dead ends. There, they don't just find hope. They create it and build a new sense of respect for themselves and each other.

That's the story of "The Women of Brewster Place," Gloria Naylor's debut novel about African-American women who rise above societies and often their own expectations. It won a National Book Award after it was published in 1982. It since become a classic of contemporary American literature.

Now the story has been adapted into a musical. "The Women of Brewster Place" had an early run at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. It is set to debut at the Arena Stage here in Washington. That's where we are right now to speak about the play with Molly Smith. She is the artistic director of Arena Stage, and she's directing "The Women of Brewster Place." Also with us is actress Tina Fabrique. She plays the lead character Mattie Michael.

Thank you both for speaking with us.

Ms. MOLLY SMITH (Director, "The Women of Brewster Place"): It's great to be here today.

Ms. TINA FABRIQUE (Actress): Thank you. It's great. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Molly, what lead you and the Arena Stage to take on "The Women of Brewster Place" as a musical of all things?

Ms. SMITH: About a year and a half ago I spoke to our Senior Dramaturg Mark Bly. And I said, Mark, I'm really hankering to direct the premiere of a new musical. And one day, he walked in to my office and he threw a CD on my desk and he said this is Tim Acito. He's got an adaption of "The Women of Brewster Place" and he's doing it all. He's doing the lyrics, he's composing the music and he's writing the book. And for some reason, I wandered over to my CD player and right away put it in, and I was really knocked out by the music. And anytime that happens in the middle of a hard day, I pay attention.

So that weekend, we were driving up to the shore. And our way driving into shore, I just kept playing his music and listening to it. And I realized, my god, this is something that we need to do. So we called Tim Acito on the phone in New York and asked him if he'd come down that week and play the rest of the score for me. And in the middle of his playing the score down on the piano in the old vat room at Arena stage, I turned to him and said - do you want to premiere it here? And I think he was a little blown away because usually that takes years and years and years of time and workshops. And he said, yeah, I would.

MARTIN: Tina Fabrique, what spoke to you about the character of Mattie Michael? Tell me who she is and why you wanted to play her.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Well, first of all, I grew up in the projects in Harlem, and I knew of that particular lifestyle, I guess, you might call it or surrounding that you grow up in. And I also know that as I grew up in the '60s, '50s, you didn't really know that you were poor, you know. All you knew is that you didn't have a lot of money. But everybody in that community pulled together. And they all got in on raising everybody's kids. So that kind of project idea really appealed to me as I read the book.

MARTIN: Sense of community.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Yeah, the sense of community and Mattie, I know lots of Matties. You know, unfortunately, in some ways, my mother was a Mattie, very much so. And so I identify very much with that heaviness of carrying the world on her shoulders.

MARTIN: Mattie has been through a lot.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean she's forced to leave home as a young unwed mother, she has a son who she's given up a very great deal for - of her spirit and of her youth, and she sort of poured it into him and hasn't really repaid her. He actually…

Ms. FABRIQUE: You know what?

MARTIN: …walked away.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Walked away. I mean, I…

MARTIN: …left her to lose what she did gain at the time. You could look at that and you just say, this is kind of a pitiful, pitiful woman.

Ms. FABRIQUE: You could but the thing about it is that there's a fiber to her that is supported by her faith in God. And I think that faith in God keeps lifting her even though she herself as a human being is being pulled down. The fiber of faith that supports her just keeps pulling her up and keeping her hopeful.

MARTIN: And that's what you liked about the character.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Yeah, I like that about her. I like the many layers to her. I liked her relationship with someone like an Etta Mae, who is her best friend, and how Etta is totally the opposite of her. I mean, she is just wild and out there with the short minis at our age, per se. But she is the person that keeps coming back to Brewster Place, and they have this long relationship since the days of high school.

MARTIN: But how do you keep Mattie from becoming pathetic?

Ms. FABRIQUE: It's hard. It's hard playing a somber woman in a musical. That's the first thing. And Molly just made me aware that we'll be working out. Yeah, this isn't easy. This is a challenge and I've always played strong women, but they're usually holy or they were usually angry. There was something that was just pitching them forward. This, with Mattie, is a somberness.

And you have to make that other stuff shine through in every scene, and it's not easy, but you find those threads that connect her to those people like Lucielia, her niece, and Serena, her little god-niece. I mean, all of these things that she's involved with bring a thread through her even though she doesn't run around, you know, smiling about everything. She's somber, but somewhere there's a deep warmth that connects her to these people.

MARTIN: Molly, I want to pick up one, this - I don't know if you remember this or not, but as you know, "The Women of Brewster Place" was a sensation when it was published in 1982. It was Gloria Naylor's first novel…

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: …won this major award. But it also appeared at a time when there are a number of novels exploring the black experience from a woman's perspective. A lot of people thought it was a bit too much. And I don't know if you remember this, but people criticized the novel - trafficking in stereotypes about the black community, about black women, black women as the victim, the men are dogs. And I've just would like to know how you think about that particularly as a person who's not of color.

Ms. SMITH: That's right.

MARTIN: And how you think about making these characters as complex as I think people would like them to be.

Ms. SMITH: That's right. First of all, I think the women in Brewster Place are fierce. They are all fierce, and every single one of them wants to move out of where they are. They want to move out of poverty. And as a white woman coming at the material and working with these extraordinary women, who are 10 of the greatest African-American female performers we have in the American theater, is that my job has really been to listen to them. At one point, I said to the actors, let me have an inside peek because I don't know your experience. I'm living a whole other experience. I'm female, but I'm white. And…

MARTIN: Talk to yourself and let me listen?

Ms. SMITH: Exactly. And that's exactly what's happened. We get into discussions, we get into arguments. They'll say, oh my God, it was that way in my family, and other people are saying, no, no, no. It would never be that way in 1975. And so that's how we drive into the authenticity of what we're presenting.

MARTIN: But what about the male-bashing criticism?

Ms. SMITH: Well, Tim Acito has done something fascinating with this musical. There are no males played onstage except through shadows. And so what the audience will see and feel is the women and their response to the men, but really, the story of it has much more to do with the women from solo perspectives who come together as a community.

And I think that that helps really change the perspective of it because you see the women in relationship to the men, but that's not the whole story. It's much more in relationship to each other.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're at Washington's Arena Stage talking about the new musical version of Gloria Naylor's classic, "The Women of Brewster Place." With us are actress Tina Fabrique and director Molly Smith.

Molly, the other challenge, of course, is that this novel has been adapted before…

Ms. SMITH: That's right.

MARTIN: …as a made-for-TV movie, won some Emmys, some high profile people playing some of these characters, and of course, anytime you adapt a book that is well-known and much loved by an audience, are you worried at all that people's expectations of it will be that it's somehow - that you're just kind of doing a line reading? Not an interpretation that you can't live up to people's expectations of having this book that they carried around for too many years.

Ms. SMITH: I think the beauty of what Tim Acito has done and what the women onstage have done is it's a musical. So Tim often talks about how this novel sings. And that's how you know if something can be adapted as a musical. So the music takes it to a whole other level. There are 26 songs within this. It's almost a sung-through musical. And it's music you'd hear if you turn down the radio on '75. Everything from funk…

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Toughen up she's always said.

Ms. SMITH: …to R&B to…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH: …disco to…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH:…to Gospel music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) But I know you must hear…

Unidentified Woman #3: We know you hear.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) …everyone's call.

Unidentified Woman #3: We're calling on.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Life is so large, but my own is so small.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes, me.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) You've got so much to tend to, a whole world to do.

Unidentified Woman #3: Have a big world to do.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) You haven't forgotten us, we know, but just to be sure.

Ms. SMITH: It is this breadth, this range, that is really dynamic. And I think because of that, the novel is playing at a whole different level in this production. I would feel the way that you do if we were just doing a stage adaptation, but doing it as a musical takes it to a whole other form.

MARTIN: And about the musical, there's some very tough material in this play, in this book. I mean, you've got the issues of - rape are explored.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: There's the issue of death…

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: …of a child explored. Is that - now obviously you're following on the fact that, you know, "The Color Purple" has since been adapted into a musical on Broadway that's very successful. But is there any anxiety about having a musical treatment of such serious matters?

Ms. FABRIQUE: As one of the people who are singing nine of the songs, I would say that what the music does for this is take the story, say, 10 steps further, yeah, in each song. You know, you get a storyline developed within the song. You get relationships developed during a song and it doesn't shy away from anything.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite song?

Ms. FABRIQUE: Well, I won't say favorite, but I do love the "This Ain't a Prayer." And this is - this is just me and God having it out about stuff that's happening. I don't understand why it's happened that way. Mattie just doesn't understand why we are being punished this way. Now we've had this relationship, Lord, for an awfully long time. But right now, I don't get it. Why are you doing this? You know, and so she has really gone into a battle with the Lord.

(Soundbite of song, "This Ain't a Prayer")

Ms. FABRIQUE: (As Mattie) (Singing) Now I see why she won't let herself cry. It's not to be strong to live, but to let herself die. She won't sleep. She won't eat. There's nothing left but a shell. Her child's now gone, and she wants to follow as well. But I say no, merciful father, she can't go. And I'm not asking you this time. I'm telling you, no.

MARTIN: And what about that other god-like figure in our society, Oprah…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …who played your character Mattie in one of the previous adaptations? Is that a little daunting to take on a role (unintelligible)…

Ms. FABRIQUE: Well, I'll be…

MARTIN: …famous as her.

Ms. FABRIQUE: I'll be honest with you. I love Oprah. I've been a big fan of her from the very, very beginning, and I was blessed to meet her when I was doing the so-called "Abyssinia" here, and I played Mother Vera. And she came and told me how much she loved what I was doing. And I feel like I'm playing Ella Fitzgerald after this show.

So if you talk about daunting, that's daunting. And when I was asked to do it, it wasn't something I went after. It kind of came to me like it was supposed to be. So that's how I look at a lot of things in this business. If you get a wonderful project, somehow the Lord has that for you to do. And if you just give yourself up to it, open up to it and be it, it'll be fine.

MARTIN: And you can't sit there and think about what…

Ms. FABRIQUE: No, you can't.

MARTIN: …the people may have in their mind. You think that your…

Ms. FABRIQUE: Oh no, I never - I never did that.

MARTIN: …your story to them.

Ms. FABRIQUE: I've been doing this too long - 35 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You started when you were a fetus.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Oh, that's so sweet. I got grandchildren and children and stuff and things. You know, I've been busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, I bet you are. But speaking of telling people stories, Molly Smith, under your leadership, the Arena Stage in Washington has staged many works by African-American authors and has staged many productions that are - I would argue - a particular interest to an African-American audience. Do you feel called to do that because you are in Washington or do these stories speak to you?

Ms. SMITH: When I came to the Arena Stage and it's - I'm now in the middle of my ninth season, so it's my 10th year here at Arena - I was very interested in reflecting the life of the entire city. And I think the way one reflects the life of the city is through the material of the city. And so that immediately drew us to many African-American projects. And that has been something that has been one of the most powerful pieces, I think, of my time here in Washington, D.C. is to be able to really develop an African-American audience. Almost a third of our audience now is African-American. And I think that that's a real testament to the work on stage. And I feel privileged to have this opportunity to be able to direct this incredible theater piece. And I feel the call to it.

MARTIN: What do you hope audiences will take away from "The Women of Brewster Place?"

Ms. SMITH: I hope audiences will take away the power of pulling together as a community. Poverty is something that sits right next to Arena Stage. It's the first time in nine and a half years that I've been here that we've presented a work that is about poverty. And that's something that's very important to me. And I think a project like "The Women of Brewster Place," were sitting next to the projects and we need to be presenting material about this.

MARTIN: Tina Fabrique, finally, to you, what has being part of this production meant to you?

Ms. FABRIQUE: It meant a lot of things. I think the first thing that I have to say is that I was approached about doing one of the workshops that were done in the early stages and I was doing Ella at the time so I wasn't available. So since this has come about, I get another opportunity to be a part of this wonderful cast.

Many of the people in the cast, for one thing, are people that I did my first show with. Terry Burrell, who plays Mrs. Browne - I came into "Bubbling Brown Sugar" with her in 1976. And Billy McDaniel is our music director, it was his first show, the "Bubbling," and it was my first show with him.

And so there's a history there of a lot of people that I've had a development in the business with, development in theater with. Of course, I worked with and for Molly Smith for years, and I've never been directed by her before so that's another thing that it really has a very strong connection to. I consider Arena Stage my second home.

MARTIN: Do you ever get on each other's nerves?

Ms. FABRIQUE: Not really. I don't think so.

Ms. SMITH: Have I gotten on your nerve, girl?

Ms. FABRIQUE: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FABRIQUE: No. You know, the funny thing is we have 10 women in the cast and you would be really amazed at how well we get along. We really get along well. It's really like a sister thing, you know. And since I'm the older sister, I get to sit back and say, oh that's great, you know. It's a wonderful feeling because it's real, it's organic, nobody's manufacturing anything.

We know we are different people from each other and nobody's trying to blend in and be like anybody else. We accept you for who you are and where you are. And I think that's the thing that makes us so spectacular when you work with people like that.

MARTIN: Tina Fabrique stars as Mattie Michael in the Arena Stage production of "The Women of Brewster Place." Molly Smith is the artistic director for Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She's directing the musical adaptation of "The Women of Brewster Place." Thank you both so much for speaking with.

Ms. FABRIQUE: Thank you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: "The Women of Brewster Place" starts preview performances at the Arena Stage in Washington tomorrow. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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