Roger Q. Mason is controversy. Roger Q. Mason is change. Roger Q. Mason is revolution.
“Every good revolution happens behind locked doors,” he proclaims, sealing the portals leading to Theatre Intime’s Charrier Room. He’s been directing rehearsals for seven weeks now in preparation for the February 23 opening of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West–the first full-length independent production of Black Arts Company Drama, of which he serves as Artistic Director. He peers through black-framed glasses that burrow into his temples.
He works indefatigably for his belief in black Drama, even reinventing existing institutions to further his goals. In 2005, for example. he took the ten-year-old Black Arts Company and hacked it in two–separating his drama sector from the dance contingent in order to foster the groups’ individual growth.
Mason, though, is not so much tired now as he is restless; yes, he at times falls with a comfortable schlump in his overstuffed leather chair, but he’s anxious. He’s eager with artistry. When asked to wax eloquent on Flyin’ West, he details an effort to promote African-American theater in a cushy, suburban Ivy League community, one that delights in largely mainstream drama.
“We read [Flyin’ West], and we fell in love with the characters, and we fell in love with the story,” he said.
Mason is particularly interested in the retelling of history on-stage, because, as he sees it, “the theater…is alive…real human beings re-imaging history.”
He pauses, bends his right wrist, and pulls his fingers in a fin together toward his heart.
“I, as a writer, am scouring the shelves of memory looking for those moments that tradition has forgotten,” he said. “And so I guess in many ways, I guess I’m both a lover of language and an aficionado of history. And so this is really why I think I am most drawn to the Black Arts Company Drama, because I am able to explore the depth and breadth and richness of African-American language, but also I am able to expose the greater Princeton community to the wealth of cultural treasure that our people posses.”
It is just this bounty that he attempts to distill in Flyin’ West, in which he presents the unsung tales of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
“This is a story of Western conquest you’ve never heard,” he warns with swooping adagio. His voice is the bold combination of Truman Capote and a gospel choir matriarch. “You see the spaghetti Westerns, you read the history books, and rarely do you see these all-black towns like in Kansas where this play takes place.”
In this presentation of specific African-American life, he finds personal and artistic liberty.
“[African Americans] had their freedom, but in the Jim Crow South, what are you going to do with it? And so this play in many ways for me was a celebration of human freedom and a hymn for the power of cultural solidarity. That in order for black people to truly claim their freedom they have to own it within themselves and understand both the power and the responsibility for that freedom.”
Mason feels an extreme political urgency in the plays he chooses to produce, but he qualifies that this political aspect is not the end-all, be-all of his aesthetic ethos.
“It’s not to say that I only believe in political plays, but I believe in pieces that have a social conscience,” he said.
The roots of this philosophy begin with his observance of the tired repetition of events without progress; in dramatic art, he attempts to confront and change history.
“Art that I produce has to be hip to the jive,” he pronounced. “It has to be both rooted in looking at how the past permeates into the present and how the present reflects the past. Because all history does is repeat itself over and over again until somebody realizes that it’s wrong, and by the time somebody realizes that it’s wrong they either die or get shot. You know what I’m saying?”
As Mason speaks, he adjusts his white collared shirt, taps his pristinely-white Adidas kicks on the floor such that the cuffs of his brown vintage pants kiss his heels at the hem.
He’s bursting and fidgeting with energy.
Last winter, Mason directed August Wilson’s Fences and produced the company’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks; however, in his shift away from the abstraction of these works, he is building this historical truth, this sense of the concrete real for African-Americans and for his Company.
“Fences is a chamber drama that engages in fourth-wall realism, but it’s also a very mystical, magical piece,” he said in emphasizing the surrealist qualities of his past productions. “And Death of the Last Black Man is most certainly a post-modern piece. It was very avant-garde in its presentation. Some would say, ‘That’s that weird shit.’ So we wanted to come back to realism.”
With Flyin’ West’s cast of Heather Rae Martin ’07, , Robert D. Grant ’08, and Kelvin Dinkins ’09, Chanel Coney ’09, Mariam Martine Camara ’10, and Professor Emeritus Cecelia B. Hodges, Mason revels in his combination of the diverse that has led to confluence of artistic expression in attaining the real.
“These are the sort of collaborations that are most fulfilling at Princeton,” he said, “when you can bring odd and ends together, and at the end you set them down on the table, and say, ‘My goodness, what do we have?’”
Though Mason has served as a publicist, director, producer, actor, and sound operator in theater, he most considers himself a playwright. It is in this realm that he applies the same socially-conscious realism to the plays he writes such as Canary Dove Shot, which chronicles the friendship of Mary Todd Lincoln and her black seamstress, or a work-in-progress that chronicles the lives of blacks in Shakespeare’s London. This is a writer who claims to have begun his appreciation for language and verbal performance in his infancy by memorizing the poems of Langston Hughes. “I was two years of age and I talked prematurely,” he said. “And I still talk prematurely.”
“I’m writing from the perspective of a lover of language, a wordsmith, someone who is deeply interested in the things that language does say, and the things that language doesn’t say,” Mason explained.
As a classically-trained pianist of 12 years and a yoga guru, Mason has patience for this silence, the in-between beat, the phrasing, the time signature, the Zen of noise and silence.
“What I’m really interested in playwriting,” he said, “is to use the medium to re-write history. I’ve always been interested in hidden historical moments. The ways that traditional history made things true. And so, you see, the history books will tell you that one thing happened, because this is what is most beneficial to those whose paradigm dictates what is to be studied. But underneath that layer, there are so many other details of human experience that are necessary, that need to be performed, and in writing them for the stage, the actors become re-writers of history, because they in acting are a new kind of history. They’re embodying it.”
Mason looks out to some indeterminable distance, and sweeping his hands in periodic snatches of the air, describes what the Company has meant to him as an expressionist.
“Here was my speaker box,” he said. “Here was my captive audience, here was my enthusiastic throng of mentors, who valued me, supported, encouraged, molded my voice and said ‘Welcome home, welcome home.’”
Mason wants to give exposure to black theater and to present and celebrate his history. With a Filipina mother and a father who is half-Irish, half-black, he admits he most strongly identifies with his black identity.
“That identity was very important in creating me as a person and as an artist,” he said, “because I was taught as a child that if you had one drop of black blood, don’t get confused, you were black.”
In Black Arts Company Drama, Mason wants to inspire African-American artists to see themselves and their stories performed.
“Here was also an invitation for audiences of color to come and see themselves on-stage and be proud of what they saw,” he said, “as well as for the community at large to look in on a cultural phenomenon known as blackness and say, ‘How interesting; how exciting!’”
But Mason isn’t satisfied even as he prepares for the premiere of Flyin’ West; he’s anxious to have other minority theater groups and more African-American students participate in BAC-Drama. He wants to capture the stories and use the essence of those people of color that he observes performing in the theater of the quotidian.
“You see these sisters holding court in Frist, laughing and jumping around, and they’re storytellers too,” he said, “but they would never think that those stories are welcome onstage. I say your story is one of the most interesting tales of human strife I’ve ever heard in my life, and I cannot wait to see it on stage. I cannot wait to see it performed.”
And perhaps he will get what he desires, for as he warns, “The theater is a powerful singer, and you cannot ignore her song; you cannot ignore her song.”