Geva’s 2014 Festival of New Theatre (FONT) kicks off tonight at 7 PM with a reading of Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant, an original work by playwright and actor Nora Cole. In writing the play, Nora dug deep into her family’s history to tell the story of her uncle, a Tuskegee airman, and her aunt, a Louisville schoolteacher. Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant is a moving and captivating love story set amidst the racial divisions of the American South during and after WWII. This is a work-in-progress reading of the script, which Geva will premiere in a full Nextstage production later this season. The Geva Journal sat down with Nora, who has previously appeared at Geva in productions such as August Wilson’s Fences, to find out more about this original work.
GJ: How did you decide to become a theatre artist?
NC: I discovered very early in my life, actually in elementary school, that I wanted to be an actor. I guess that sounded a little weird to people in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time I was growing up, but I always pursued it. I started doing theatre when I was in grade school. I worked with a couple companies the entire time through high school. I think my parents thought that was a great extra-curricular activity, but they didn’t expect me to apply to a college to get a degree in acting, but I did. So, I went to the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago. And the program was really like most graduate programs are now. When I got out of school, I didn’t go back to Kentucky because I would not have found any work. So I went straight to New York and I’ve been there ever since.
GJ: What inspired you to make the leap to playwriting?
NC: I started writing because once I had been in the business for about ten years, you get to know that you’re going to have these lulls in work. So I wanted to create work for myself, and I wanted to see images that I didn’t see. I wanted to see my experience as a black person onstage. That started my writing. My first play was a solo piece; an ode to adolescence called Oliva’s Opus. It’s very autobiographical, but I wasn’t ready to put myself out there, so the character’s name was Oliva Bradford Long, which is a combination of different names throughout my family. I based it on journals I had kept when I was about ten to fourteen.
GJ: Would you describe yourself as primarily a writer, or primarily an actor?
NC: I am primarily an actor. I’ve been an actor for many, many years now. I always say I’m a “veteran performing artist.” I say I’m a performing artist because I do sing, I’ve danced all my life—that’s a little bit limited now. And I’ve been writing for fifteen to twenty years now.
GJ: How does your experience as an actor inform your writing?
NC: My experience as an actor informs my writing because I read everything aloud myself, and the character becomes clearer to me. And most of my writing is in the niche of drawing on stories from my family. Because I have such an amazing archive of letters and photographs of my family, along with the oral histories I have recorded over the years, the stories that stick in my mind over the years really influence my writing.
GJ: What about the other way around? Does writing influence how you act?
NC: Not really, even though in this piece I’m playing myself. At some point, the writer has to take a back seat to the actor, and then that takes on a whole life of its own.
GJ: Tell us about Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant. What prompted this piece?
NC: I was prompted by discovering a collection of letters that had been written to my aunt by her fiancé during World War II. And I just found the letters so fascinating. I really wanted the information in the letters to be heard. First of all, they were written so eloquently. But it was all from the point of view of a very educated man in a segregated military, and his observations and experiences. He laid it out in letters so eloquently. That was what initially compelled me. I still want to just publish the letters. I think they will stand alone, just in the context of World War II and the experience of African Americans through this man’s experience. Since I have been working on the piece and doing research, I know that there are a lot more letters from that period from African Americans, and that is not the demographic that is focused on in, say…The Greatest Generation [by Tom Brokaw]. There have been other projects of collecting World War II letters, but there has not been a big focus on [the letters of African Americans]. But I know they’re all in attics and boxes and trunks and garages all over, still.
GJ: What were you hoping to learn about the play during this workshop process at FONT?
NC: Oh, gosh–so, so much. To hear it! I did one little reading of a few pages before I came here, but really to sit at the table, to hear it, and to have the director and the dramaturg, David Schweizer and Jenni Werner, give me feedback. I didn’t really know what I had before I got here. And I was working right up until our first read-through! I’ve gone home every night and re-written some more, or made cuts. So it’s been extremely informative to have this process. I know that this project would not be where it is now if I did not have this opportunity, and actually the last two years. Being able to spend a year on research, and being able to spend this year writing. I don’t write every day. This piece did not come easy, even with all the information I had. It took me a long time to figure out who’s point of view to tell the story from.
GJ: How did you make that decision?
NC: Once I got all the information out that I knew I wanted to include, the information from the letters that I knew I definitely wanted to use, and interviews with other people—my dad, my mom, one of my aunt’s friends—and just got it all out…little by little, the point of view made itself evident.
Katherine’s Colored Lieutenant will be read tonight (October 20th) at 7 PM in the Nextstage Theatre, followed by a Q&A with Nora and a small reception.