Lindsay Christians, 77 Square
Photo by Zane Williams
For Madison writer Gwendolyn Rice, there’s always one character in each of her plays with whom she’s a little infatuated.
In “A Thousand Words,” a premiere presented by Forward Theater Co. this weekend in Promenade Hall, that character is Walker Evans.
Evans, who died in 1975, was an American photographer best known for his images of destitute farmers and their families during the Great Depression.
As imagined by Rice in her play (which is not a strict biography), Evans is intelligent, stubborn, self-centered and capricious. He doesn’t like being told what to do. He is talented, and he knows it.
“I am in love with Walker Evans,” said Rice. “When I first wrote the play, he’s very suave, he’s very witty, he’s very smart. He says the right things.
“And so it was interesting to go back and find his foibles, and find the places where he needed to learn.”
This is Rice’s fourth full-length play, her first to be given a full production by a professional theater company — two companies, in fact. “A Thousand Words” is being co-produced by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, where the Madison production will move from Feb. 16-March 11. Rice has served as Forward’s publicist since the company was founded in 2009.
In her plays, Rice likes to take two stories and wind them together. She gave “A Thousand Words” a back-and-forth structure as it moves between the 1930s and present day.
One part of the story follows Evans, the photographer, and Shirley, a tentative young writer, after they receive an assignment from the Farm Security Administration to document the condition of sharecroppers in the West and Midwest. They bicker, sleep in barns and run out of gas, forming an unlikely bond along the way.
Walker Evans “wants to capture moments as they are, and let that speak for itself,” said actor Josh McCabe, who returns to play Evans after first reading the role at the Wisconsin ’Wrights New Play Project in 2008.
“He carried a little hidden camera in his coat and took pictures of people in the subway. … There’s a great line in the play when he’s talking with Shirley, and she says that doesn’t seem nice; if they don’t know their picture’s being taken they can’t prepare for it.
“And he says, ‘Nice? I’m not poking fun.’ It’s his own fascination with people, to capture who they are when they don’t think anyone’s looking.”
The other part of the story takes place in the present day, when some of Evans’ photos are found among Ernest Hemingway’s personal effects in a dive bar in Cuba. (Rice found inspiration for the play in a news clipping about this, a real event.)
The photos are, of course, quite valuable. Sally, an exhibitions manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is on a work trip to Kansas to acquire some quilts when she discovers an unexpected connection (and complication) with the newly discovered Evans photos.
Since the first readings of “A Thousand Words,” Sally’s character has evolved. Sarah Day plays her in Forward’s production as an academic with the best intentions, who nonetheless engages in hard-line negotiations with a Kansas-based marketing exec who has her own claims on Evans’ legacy.
“I’m excited to share this art,” Day said, describing her character’s motivations. “It’s important for people to see this art, to appreciate the work that’s been created, as opposed to getting it to sell it.”
Day likes that the play asks complicated questions, like what artwork has value, who decides what is art and who gets to see it.
The characters in “A Thousand Words” wonder whether or not a back story makes a photograph more interesting (or valuable), and what is owed to the people who either appear in a famous photograph or make valuable folk art, from recognition to monetary compensation.
“You know, ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words,’ but is the ‘Mona Lisa’ more interesting if you know the background?” Day said. “Or is that art valuable because you look at it and you say, ‘That is beauty.’ You don’t need to know anything else about it.”
Rice’s play doesn’t offer easy answers, least of all for the playwright herself.
“It’s about the power of words and pictures. It’s about the ownership of art, and the ability of art and artists to change the world,” she said. “These photographers were going out and literally changing the way America thought about its own citizens.”