I rarely recall specific lines from plays. I don’t think most of us do. We recall moments. Feelings. If the play grabs us enough, maybe we get a copy of the script and immerse ourselves in it. As a playwright, I certainly want people to read and understand my words with that much fullness, but I know that won’t happen unless I create transformational moments for people to gravitate to.
Can a whole play be filled with such gravity? Can it hold you in motion like a planet holds its moon?
Kathleen Collins’s The Brothers is an unconventionally structured family drama, centered around the concept of grief. The first time I read it, I was immediately magnetized by its beauty and strangeness. This play speaks all my languages. It traffics in silence and poetry, in gesture and stillness. At first read, it asks not to be fully understood, but for permission to wash over you.
As the play begins, the newly widowed Mrs. Winston enters the office of Mr. Norrell, an undertaker. What follows is a perfect distillation of the thrillingly unpredictable journey to come:
|MRS WINSTON:||Mr. Norrell . . . You are Mr. Norrell. No one else buries any of the Edwards but you.|
|(Mr. Norrell looks up)|
|MRS WINSTON:||My husband just died. He was not an Edwards, though to his dying day he got confused. I kept him confused. I and my four brothers, all of whom have passed through these very walls on their way to God knows where.|
As Mrs. Winston goes on at length about her four brothers, impersonating them and, at times, seeming to become possessed by them, Mr. Norrell listens, sits, stands, and smokes cigarettes, but never speaks. When Mrs. Winston finally gets back to the matter at hand (the burial not of her brothers, but her husband) the scene ends. The stage is then yielded, one at a time, to five women (four wives and one mother-in-law) that the Edwards brothers left behind when they each died. Each woman talks for, it seems, exactly as long as she needs to in order to purge her emotions. At the end of the play, Mrs. Winston returns to deliver a powerful epilogue; her perspective has become disoriented and so too has her grief. It’s a fantastic ending that gives clarifying, poetic, and full-throated voice to the essential dilemma that has been churning beneath the surface of every speech and story we have just witnessed.
In writing for the stage, I often find myself in search of the kind of expression that Collins executes so uniquely in this play. I want to throw myself into a moment with the precise abandon of a poet, and I want to see what my characters do when they find themselves cornered inside it. I want to have a conversation with life and death, fear and pain, love and grief, contradictions and transformations, and I want to do so with a touch that is as light as it is penetrating.
Collins’s sense of theatricality is woven so deeply into the fabric of her work that it can be presented directly without sacrificing its delicacy. The third woman to speak in The Brothers is Letitia, who married Franklin Edwards after his previous wife, Lillie, passed away:
|LETITIA (seeking an audience):||When I was first introduced as the replacement for Dead Lillie, mouths fell, heads turned away, Lawrence had the awful dramatic gull to call me a Negro nun, all of them flared and snorted like racehorses at the gate . . . Franklin could see, then and forever, that I had no performance value.|
|(She moves farther downstage as if in her mind she has created a real audience)|
|LETITIA (directly to the audience):||The Edwardses are all fine performers . . . even the in-laws must measure up.|
There is a treasury of images and information here that, in the rarefied air of the theater, gains value far beyond the exposition it gives us. But the key to this passage, really, is in the clarity and specificity of its emotional shifts—and how present and active they are from moment to moment. When Letitia speaks the words “I had no performance value” this demonstrably affects her, because her next action is to move downstage. She then directly addresses the audience, attempting, it would seem, to prove the accusation wrong (or right). Movements and shifts like this are, in a very literal sense, dramatic action. If executed properly they have the effect of making the audience lean in, bringing them within the embrace of the play.
I’ve found such emotional shifts, whether large or small, to be invaluable in my own exploration of the form. When I was working on my early play The Wind and the Breeze I struggled mightily to find the correct way to end it. At first, I tried for something tragic, which simply didn’t land. I wanted so badly to be meaningful and say something important that I wasn’t listening to the play. Ultimately, what I found I needed was not an earth-shaking plot twist, but a fundamental emotional shift for the main character—and a theatrically realized change in perspective. I had to trust myself and my collaborators to land it effectively. I also had to accept the play for what it was and understand that it may not appeal to most producing theaters.
Kathleen Collins did not achieve great renown for her writing during her lifetime. When she died, in 1988, she was only 46. Yet in her plays and short stories, and in her film Losing Ground (which she both wrote and directed), she evinces a supreme confidence in her own voice and vision. In recent years her work has gained enormous traction in scholarly and literary circles. The theater, if we are lucky, is next in line to be reintroduced to her. She reminds me that the truth expressed between bodies onstage should be artful. That it can be both intimate and expansive. That it can be informed by what is plausible in the confines of what we call real life without being limited by reflexive subservience to what we call realistic. Above all, she encourages me to remain faithful to my vision as I continue to deepen my craft. This, I think, applies as much when my work is being celebrated as when it’s not. Praise can be fickle, but our aim is the truth of words, and of worlds. ♦
NATHAN ALAN DAVIS is a playwright known for his poetic and stylistically diverse explorations of family, Black life, and history. His plays include The High Ground (upcoming, Arena Stage), Nat Turner in Jerusalem (New York Theatre Workshop), Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea (NNPN Rolling World Premiere), and The Wind and the Breeze (Cygnet Theatre). He received a Windham- Campbell Prize in 2021. Other recent honors include: The Lark Venturous Fellow (2021-22), Steinberg Playwright Award (2020), Sundance Lab at Ucross Fellow (2019), and Whiting Award in Drama (2018). He is a Lecturer in Theater and Berlind Playwright-in-Residence at Princeton University.
KATHLEEN COLLINS (1942 - 1988) was a playwright, poet, and filmmaker. Others works include the play In the Midnight Hour (1981), and the first feature length film directed by an African-American woman, Losing Ground (1982).
Photo of Kathleen Collins: kathleencollins.org