Two nights before Fences opens, I saw director Roger Q. Mason ‘08 in rehearsal at Theater Intime. He stood onstage, reading and gesturing for a missing actor over the top of his script. The wooden set was unpainted, and the rehearsal was running late – usual last-week features of a show about to pull itself together.?
I spoke to Mason on Friday morning in Intime’s basement green room. Pleased with yesterday’s opening night, he splayed one hand across his chest and told me that he felt “very blessed. Last night was a tremendous opportunity for everyone to see the fruits of their labor come to life, in a very dynamic way.”?
“You know,” he continued, emphasizing his phrases with lifts of the chin, “the translation from page to stage is a very magical transition. And it’s something that you cannot teach. There is no rehearsal process that can instill that. It comes merely from the human being’s inclination and desire to communicate with another human being. And that’s organic and natural and cannot be taught.” ?
“Your job,” he said, referring to his own directorial role, “Is merely to help the actors find that place from which he can spark his own interpretation. And to see that happening on opening night was so refreshing and so fulfilling. What I really saw last night was passion. Passion, and love.”?
Mason moved through the elements of Fences, crafted to compliment dramatic themes. “This is a play about repetition and about cycles, rituals and continuity within people’s daily lives,” he explained. “It tries to show how a certain ritual is unraveled and undone. So what we did with colorism” – his own word for the lighting design – “particularly was to create certain color patterns. And then once the tale starts to unravel, then we start introducing other colors. This was done very effectively by Will Ellerbe, and I’d like you to sing his praises in here too.”?
The praise is characteristic of Mason. He gushed over his actors, mentors, and collaborators, listing names like a grateful Oscar winner. “I was blessed to work with Doug Lavanture, who is really one of the staples in the artistic conversation that is Intime,” he said of the theater board member. “Doug put together a very eclectic and effective mix that showed a lot of these ideas of spiraling and generational clashes. Also, at the end of the show there’s this very interesting thing that Doug does with sound where he shows the passage of time. And that I won’t give away,” Mason laughed. “That’s your six dollar question right there, that’s your Tiger Ticket.”?
Fences places Black Arts Company Drama, for which Mason is Artistic Director, on the Intime stage for the first time. “I have a tremendous respect for Theater Intime’s producing capacity and I want [BAC Drama] to learn from that, as a ?young organization,” he explained. ?
In his eyes, BAC Drama has experienced a “renaissance” over the past year. “What I saw when I got here was a group of tremendously passionate individuals within the community of color at Princeton,” said Mason, “Who just needed that last ?final push to put all those elements in place, and bring them to the main stage.” He sees himself as a force behind this, “bridging the artistic and traditional gap between the theater organizations on campus, and particularly BAC Drama.” Once Mason starts talking over his black-framed Prada glasses, his enthusiasm nearly precludes my getting in a question. I asked why he is drawn to theatrical projects raising, in his own words, “multicultural issues.” It’s his African American heritage, he responded, and his family’s artistic past, which has shown him “the communicative ability of the black body on stage. And it gives me a tremendous mission I want to fulfill.”?
He expounded on the connection between personal and public growth: “Through explaining something to somebody else, you’re really explaining it to yourself. And this is a country that really tries to instill in its citizens a sense of cultural amnesia. It never happened, it wasn’t real. So people forget sometimes where they come from, and where other people have come from also.” ?
“I think that what these projects I pursue do,” he added. “They allow us all to remember where we’ve been.” Mason began to tell me about Contribution, the Freshman One Act play he directed last February. “I was sitting there one night and I said, ‘thank God we’ve come a long way from that!’” He laughs and puts a hand over his eyes. “They had to poison the sheriff with cornbread to get away!”?
Nevertheless, awareness of continuing racial issues comes out in prop and costume quality. “There are two things you don’t want to do with black plays in general. You don’t want to…to gentrify the plays. You don’t want to disacknowledge the socioeconomic striving of the people. But you also don’t want to do what Cornel West and I call ghettofy.”?
“That’s really [playwright] August Wilson’s project,” Mason added, moving back to Fences’ modern relevance. “To make the past alive in the present, and to show certain similarities that still, though subtle, though transmogrified, are present today.”?
The next time I saw Roger Q. Mason was at the Fences cast party on Saturday night. He danced ecstatically, looking as “blessed” by the show’s opening as he’d repeatedly claimed to be. The message and mission may be serious, but he was basking in the fun of the ride. Maybe for Mason, there’s no separation.