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Using Critical Fabulation for History-Based Playwriting

When the pandemic hit last March, the University of Memphis, as with most theatres and universities, went online for the rest of the semester, and our spring musical—one week into rehearsal—was canceled. Our chair, feeling deeply the loss to our students, wanted to provide them with a special experience when we came back in the fall. The idea was born to commission a new play to be written for our students about the effect of the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878 on African Americans and immigrants.

We landed on Calley N. Anderson’s proposal to tell these stories metatheatrically, centering on a contemporary, fictional Memphis theatre company themselves tasked with devising a play about the yellow fever epidemic. Over the course of the fall semester, the cast of BFA actors, Anderson, and I met weekly to share research, read new pages, and explore the issues raised by her play, The Story and the Teller. We performed the resulting draft in a Zoom reading.

zoom video chat of several people

Photo of the cast from the reading of The Story and the Teller by Calley N. Anderson. From the top right: Raina Williams, Justin Wills, Lauren Mathews, Austin Cloyd, Aly Milan, Elijah Bienz, Felicia Kimbrell, Oscar Garcia, Madisen White, Jada Farmer, Haleigh Johnson, Nicholas Davis, Tiffany Bonds, Jatavius Haynes, and Nikki Monson.

Just as the fictional Memphis theatre company at the heart of the play struggles to turn historical research into compelling theatre, so did we. When the 1878 epidemic hit, Memphis’s upper- and middle-class white citizens fled the city, leaving those less fortunate to tend to the sick and dying. Histories of the epidemic tend to valorize the white people who stayed behind, and though their contributions were admirable, stories of Memphis’s Black citizens and the hard-hit Irish immigrant population are hard to come by in comparison. Yet it was these people who kept the city alive through some of its darkest days.

To address this problem, Anderson adopted historian Saidiya Hartman’s theory of critical fabulation. Hartman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, coined the term in her essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Critical fabulation is the combining of historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative to fill in the blanks left in the historical record. It is both a fleshing out and a problematizing of history and is ultimately as gratifying and frustrating as it sounds. From the essay:

By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done. By throwing into crisis ‘what happened when’ and by exploiting the ‘transparency of sources’ as fictions of history, I wanted to make visible the production of disposable lives (in the Atlantic slave trade and, as well, in the discipline of history), to describe ‘the resistance of the object,’ if only by first imagining it, and to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity.

As a follow up to the development process, in December 2020 Anderson and I reflected on the fit between Hartman’s way of writing history and the creation of history-based theatre.

That became the point of me telling the story—that I’m a Black woman in 2020, looking back on my own city’s history, and I can’t find anything.

Holly Derr: Will you remind me how you came across Hartman’s work and the theory of critical fabulation?

Calley Anderson: It was through a virtual talk that the African American Policy Forum did, with Saidiya Hartman and N. K. Jemisin, moderated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, called “Storytelling While Black and Female: Conjuring Beautiful Experiences in Past & Future Worlds.” I’d heard Hartman’s name and knew she had written this book called Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals.

I had already submitted the proposal to the university and had received the commission. But I felt so strange trying to put words in the mouths of these people. So when I saw the African American Policy Forum was doing a talk, and two other friends told me to go…

It was such a huge light-bulb moment for me, because I had been frustrated with the research I was doing, it was really hard for me to find Black women in the yellow fever archives. When Hartman mentioned critical fabulation, I was like, This is the thing. This is structure, this is the language I’ve been looking for, this is the language that helps me know what I’m doing. Because essentially what I did with this piece is a form of critical fabulation: merging the history and the archive with stories of what might have been.

That kinship gave me permission to try this thing out fully for the first time—to really go deep into what it means to take a historical person and try to give life and words to them.

Holly: In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman asks a series of questions, and she doesn’t always answer them, which I think is a signature of her work. So maybe it’s not fair of me to do this, but I want to ask you some of the questions she raises. Let’s start with, “To what end does one tell such stories?” She’s talking about Venus, this particular enslaved woman, specifically, but in general she’s talking about stories that involve racial violence and suffering. “How and why does one write a history of violence? Why revisit these events?”

Calley: I didn’t set out to tell the story we ended up telling. I’ve just always been fascinated by the yellow fever epidemic, and I saw the call for proposals and was like, “I want to tell this story.” The commission said, “We want to tell the story from the perspective of African Americans and immigrants,” and I thought, There’s obviously going to be tons of tons of data about those two populations. But in my first stabs at research, I was very quickly disturbed.

I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find any Black women, and yet here I am, a Black woman, trying to tell the story. That is when things shifted, and that became the point of me telling the story—that I’m a Black woman in 2020, looking back on my own city’s history, and I can’t find anything. I know I was there, but there’s nothing to tell me specifically who I might’ve been.

That became the first kernel of, “What would a different Black woman who’s having to tell this story now, or a Black actress who was told she has to do a play about this, do and feel?” That became how the play got set much closer to now—I knew it needed to be in the time of COVID-19 and it had to involve a Black woman having to reckon with the reality: “I’m not represented in this history, even though I am from this city.”

It would be easy to make the past racist, but it is much harder to grapple with what racism and white supremacy look like in a contemporary rehearsal room in this moment.

Holly: Another of her questions is: “How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of it?”

Calley: That’s something I thought about constantly with this piece, about the moment in act two where one of the white women devisors asks for one of the Black men to be shot on stage. We had to get to a place where staging Black trauma was going to be something that would not only be discussed but done in a way that allows both the audience and our creative team to witness just how negligent and harmful it could be. That meant figuring out how to be careful with that moment so I didn’t just replicate trauma without care.

And as we kept taking the journey, I realized the traumas of 1878, in terms of racism, were going to be obvious to a degree because it was 1878, and when creating the characters, I didn’t want to lean so heavily on that. For me, the way to grapple with how to not use the language and replicate the trauma was to separate the historical side and the contemporary side. It would be easy to make the past racist, but it is much harder to grapple with what racism and white supremacy look like in a contemporary rehearsal room in this moment. It’s much closer to ourselves.

Holly: So the “how” of writing a history of oppression was to contextualize it in the present?

Calley: Yeah. It only felt like a purposeful answer to the question, “Why tell these stories, why go back to this violence and these horrible periods?” when it became about how Black women like myself have to deal with the struggles of this history, and I’m not in it. Being in this moment where we’re talking about Black women and how we are underserved or invisible or doubly oppressed, the purpose was to show we’ve been fighting this battle for a very long time, and there are people who have been fighting the battle with us, and there are people who have been pushing against us as we’ve battled, and the battle is not over.

People are just now apparently awakening to the battle, and you’re on the battlefield with people you didn’t necessarily choose to be on the battlefield with, which I think a lot of people found in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the social uprisings that happened in the summer. A lot of non-Black people were thrown into a thing they had no primer for, so they were searching for primers and searching for ways to understand and reading books, and that’s helpful. But reading a book and then being in the middle of a conversation is a very different thing.

My purpose became trying to examine moments like these in practice rather than in theory. In theory, someone reads an anecdote that didn’t happen to them, and it’s different than what they might actually do in practice when they’re in front of a person. I wanted to make one of those situations to examine what could happen.

Holly: The fictional “New Curve Theatre” in your play The Story and the Teller is unable to navigate the combination of gaps in the historical record and the contemporary difficulties of telling stories about race in interracial groups. When the Black actors refuse to turn trauma into entertainment, the company disbands.

During the process, we talked about identifying the moments where things went awry for the fictional theatre company, and the moments where maybe it could have gone differently. Do you think, given the way the American theatre business is, and given the way the world is, there is a world in which the production in The Story and the Teller could have made it to completion and been a success?

Calley: I think it would take a lot, but I don’t think it’s impossible. If there’s anything I want the audience to walk away knowing, it’s not that these conversations can never be had successfully. I have had them after many challenging fights and battles. There are people I’ve still been able to go to and say, “Despite all of this, we can still get to a better place,” though it may not be the final place.

I think the choices the characters in the play made created the pathway they went down. That’s the way the world works: one person does have the ability to create a whole new trajectory and it can impact many people. And if one person makes a choice or says one thing that’s maybe not at the best moment or in the best way, the pathway changes. That’s what I wanted to examine, how those new pathways are created, and who people become because of it.

Those are two critical pieces of how this world and how history is built because, like we discovered in our rehearsal process, the archives of the nineteenth-century Black newspapers in Tennessee—and there were many—don’t exist.

Holly: It’s a very Brechtian idea. Also, I’m staring at another quote from Hartman that is basically what you’re saying: “I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling right.” You are telling the story of all of these people and events and emotions that were left out of the original telling, but you are also amplifying the notion that it’s really hard to do that.

Calley: That’s why I landed on the title of the piece as The Story and the Teller, because when I was trying to explain it, the point I kept coming back to was that it’s not just the story being told, it’s who’s telling it in terms of the historical side and this contemporary moment where the actors are trying to tell the historical side. In both cases, the story is entirely dependent on who was/is telling it, not just the story itself.

Those are two critical pieces of how this world and how history is built because, like we discovered in our rehearsal process, the archives of the nineteenth-century Black newspapers in Tennessee—and there were many—don’t exist. I’m sure this would have been a very different piece if we had had access to that wealth of knowledge and wealth of experience. But we don’t, and that is a crucial part of why this story is typically told the way it is, because Black archival material was not thought important enough to be saved.

Holly: Here’s another Hartman quote, and you really did this, too: “By flattening the levels of narrative discourse and confusing narrator and speakers, I hope to eliminate the contested character of history, narrative, event, and fact to topple the hierarchy of discourse and to engulf authorized speech in the clash of voices.” One of the big things you did with your play was this clash of voices, with people literally talking over one another and talking at the same time, and the arguments that happened.

Calley: That felt the most authentic, not only because of the sheer amount of people in the room, but because we’re dealing with two different sets of people: the historical people who these actors are playing and the actors themselves. In reality, our actors had to do a lot of work, both investigating the person they were playing and the person their person is playing.

The work they had to do to investigate those layers was going to feel like a clash in their bodies, as it should. And then they had to bring that clash one layer up to what was happening in the rehearsal room. The clash is what makes it electric for me. I don’t give direct answers or solutions because that’s not the point. The point is the clash of conversations, for an audience member to leave with an experience and interrogate that for themselves.

Cover of Saidiya Hartman's book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

Cover of Saidiya Hartman's book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

Holly: Hartman says critical fabulation is kind of impossible: “What I’m trying to do is impossible and it’s a history of an unrecoverable past.” Now that you have finished—at least with this draft—can you evaluate whether you were successful at the act of critical fabulation? Or is there no such thing as real success at that?

Calley: Hmm, I am unsure. I think the nature of this beast partially means I will never know whether I was successful. How do you make it feel honorable and not like a complete lie? The personal barometer for “Did I succeed?” is “Did I honor these people in the way I intended to or that they would appreciate?” I will never know the answer to that question, because I will never meet them. So I don’t have a way of knowing what success means.

But it was extremely important for me to have this opportunity to investigate the city that I love so much, because I identify with being a Memphian so deeply. It means so much to me to be from the city, on the level of both historical and contemporary ingenuity and creativity and grit and honesty. I have a tattoo of the coordinates of Memphis on the inside of my left arm. I got it before I moved to New York City, because I needed to remember what is most central to me.

The characters in The Story and the Teller embody what Memphis represents for me: the variety of people, the variety of perspectives, the variety of ways they speak, the variety of ways they show up in a room. And I always want to be honoring the people who make the city what it is. If I did that to any degree, that makes me happy more than anything.

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