Several months ago, through the link of a shared friend, I met Sara Beattie -- textbook writer, curriculum developer, and author of A Question of Color, a fictionalized memoir of her great-grandparents, Susan and John Morgan. (This link will open a new window.) She wanted to turn Color into a stage play; was I interested in doing it? I had never done an adaptation, had never read about adapting one literary form into another, had no assurance I brought any talent to the task -- but that did not stop me from immediately agreeing to try when Sara told me the core of her book's tale.
In 1907, in North Carolina, Sara's great-grandmother and great-grandfather decided to get married. But they had a dangerous problem to face -- Susan Morgan was black and John Wicks was white, which made the union illegal according to North Carolina law. Susan came from a mixed line of Indians on her mother's side and Africans on her father's. John came from the mountains, his father a moonshiner, his mother a tragic, used-up victim who died fiercely loved by her son and ignored by her husband.
They made up their minds and hearts to defy the law and get married -- but for the rest of their lives they lived, as Susan called it, in "the box" formed by their lie (John passed himself off as Indian to blunt questions about his lighter skin, though no one ever fully believed him). In the end, the lie had to come out, and it did so in retribution and sadness.
Three things appealed to me about the story. First, the story itself -- full-bodied, 3D, sharp and savage. Second, the fight that John and Susan had to make to form an interracial couple differs only in degree from the same fight cross-bordering couples have to make today. True, it is no longer against the law -- the legal law (which only fell, by Supreme Court fiat, in 1967) -- but it still violates many people's sense of order (witness the contretemps interracial dating made at Bob Jones University this year, at the start of the 21st century -- ante-bellum thinking is certainly not dead and gone). I felt that bringing this book to the stage was a way to give a voice to this still contemporary bigotry without having to be hobbled by being contemporary; a historical play could be dated without being "dated." Third, the doing of the play itself would make flesh the very values and points of view I wanted to get across -- about the common humanity we all share under the skin and the need to see how the "question of color" in our culture still governs so much of how and why we act the way that we do.
So, with the blessing of Sara and fortified by my ignorance of the laws and traps of adaptation, I set up to map the wonderful and treacherous territory of Color.
Here is what I learned about making the chrysalis of one literary species bloom into the butterfly of another.
First, and most obvious, I had to read the book, which I did -- three times. (With constant re-readings and re-referrings, I have probably read the book another three times as well.) The first time was for introductions; the second time, for clarity, now that I knew characters and narratives; the third time, for actually experiencing the story with eyes and ears tuned by the first two readings, the way sensors need to be calibrated for what they are supposed to sense.
But after I had ingested the book and started thinking about how to put it on stage, I faced an unexpected question: what was the actual story I was going to tell? This may seem odd at first; after all, the story is right there in the pages: John and Susan get married, acquire land, have two children, open some businesses, and so on. But, as Keith Johnstone points out in Impro, "the trouble with such a sequence is that there's no place where it can stop, or rather, it can stop anywhere." This said to me is that the story of Color was not the chain of events that Sara had so lovingly laid down in the book. But if not them, then what?
This brought me to my first "click" about structure and its effect on content and meaning: novels and plays tell stories in very different ways. In terms of space and time, novels are "leisurely": one can drop in and drop out as one wishes, and they can be read anywhere. A play cannot "play" this way because it is bound to a space and, like smoke, bleeds away as the clock runs down. Therefore, to make Color work on stage, it could not be a simple echo of the events that Sara had chained together; instead, as Johnstone pointed out, the "arc" of a play's story had to be loops and knots and, in his word, "reincorporation." There is no place to put a bookmark or press "pause" in a play; once the key is turned, the engine must go until it stops.
But right away this brought me back to the first question: what was the actual story I was going to tell? What was the fuel I was going to put in the "engine" to keep it going until it stopped? I went back to the book, but instead of staying linear (left to right and down the page), I took newsprint and, taking Johnstone literally, began to draw loops and knots and "reincorporations." In short, I started looking for links that Sara may or may not have put in the book but which I needed to give the play's story the forward momentum it needed.
And this ran me straight into the core ethical wall in adaptation: what did the term "faithful" mean in reference to the original material? Sara, bless her heart, gave me free rein to re-arrange the book any way I wanted, which solved the immediate doubt. But the question stayed with me, as it should have, all through the work, and not until the script was done did I have what I thought was a reasonable reply. (More on this at the end.)
Just to give two examples of how my "looping" helped me craft an arc that was able to "re-incorporate" itself in a way the novel's arc did not. One of the characters, Goforth, manages a great deal of land (which actually belongs to his wife). He is a Southern aristocrat and knows well the intricate couplings between blacks and whites, between slaves and owners, despite what the laws say. Becky is a black preacher women whom John and Susan meet. She marries them and adopts them as her "family," and to help John find work, she goes to Goforth to ask him to give John a job. Now, when I read the book, what popped up was, "How did this poor black woman, descendent of a slave, know the richest man in the county well enough to walk up to him on his porch and ask him a favor?" The book gives me no answer. So I made one up (with Sara's approval): Goforth and Becky had "known" each other Biblically at some point in the past, and Mrs. Goforth knew about their "knowing" each other, a knowledge she keeps unvoiced but which clearly animates her in the scene as Becky stands in front of Goforth. Later, this hidden knowledge is part of what fires Mrs. Goforth to wreak havoc on John at the end of the play after Goforth's death -- the crossing of the color line by both her husband and John tars them with the same brush, and John is battered by an unleashed fury that Mrs. Goforth can no longer vent on her absent husband.
By creating a plausible secret past for Goforth, Mrs. Goforth, and Becky, and having that secret carry its venom forward in time and action until it scalds John, made sense of events in the book that simply followed one after the other and were not linked by any visible motive. Now, this "past" was not in the book, but it also did not violate any issue that the book raised or how Sara drew the characters. In other words, I was not faithful to the book in a literal sense, but I was faithful in a deeper or higher sense by extending what was there in ways that honored the book's spirit and intentions.
Another example involved John's father, a derelict moonshiner, abusive and swinish. There is a second moonshiner in the book, Grover Bolling, whose son, Wayne, is mentally unbalanced. Violent actions by Wayne in one of his unhinged states hurts Susan and Becky, and John decides to make Grover pay for what his son did. When Susan finds out John's scheme to get Grover's land, she is angered by the fact that he will work with the enemy, and John, who up to now has told her nothing about his past life, explains that he is going to make Grover pay because John's father was never forced to pay for the sins that he committed. Through Grover, John will finally make his father repent, and in the process he will acquire land, which to John is the same as a strong wall to keep out the poison of color.
Again, this is not in the book, but looping the two moonshiners together through John gives John a reason for doing something which otherwise could simply come off as blind greed. It also sets in motion other events which, through link and loop and loss, propel John to face the "box" in which he and Susan are trapped, giving the "arc" the forward dynamic parabola it needs.
By doing this weaving, I discovered the story I was going to tell. Or, more accurately, I un-covered the story. Or, even more accurately, the story found me. I now saw Sara's book not as a unified literary work but instead as a puzzle whose pieces could be taken apart and moved around by "looping" them together in terms of motives and spurs and triggers. At the same time, the looping also became a filter for which events I would keep, which I would not use, and which I would modify. As choices got made, the pieces also began to suggest ways the loops could be tighter or looser or made to follow paths not in the source material.
As the story began to find itself, I also started writing the script, listening for the "notes" the threads made as they vibrated in their connections. And, of course, the writing became another "looping" element as the stuff on the page got fed back into the mix and forced new arrangements and codas. The choice of these words -- notes, mix, arrangements, codas -- is by design because the whole process had now become very much like making a musical score.
That is why a reader will find the speech rhythms written the way they are -- not to recreate an early 20th-century North Carolina accent but instead to find intonations that carry the spirits of the characters. That is why a reader will so hear much actual music in the script -- it seemed a natural follow-on to the "scoring" of the story. That is why a reader will find so much suggested movement -- music must have its choreography to make the sounds visible.
What all this proved to me is that the term "adaptation" misleads because it implies modification around the edges of an intact core. The closer truth is that the writer must create an entirely new body; it may sound and move much like the original, but only in the way a new species has echoes in its DNA of what it used to be. The new work has its own aesthetic imperatives, its own gravity that warps space and time, its own physiognomy and musculature. The greatest release for me in adapting Sara's book came from no longer being bound by the "bookness" of the book -- its original species -- but freed instead to "mutate" it, so to speak, into the new form demanded by the new "ecology" of the stage.
One last word about "faithful." I learned that there are several things to be faithful to. One is the "facts," of course -- that is, honoring what the creator put out there for one to work on. But there is also a spirit that arises from the facts and goes beyond them; for example, things in the musical Ragtime were not literally in Doctorow's novel, but he approved of them because they honored the intention he had when he put his novel together, even if they were not a direct translation of his page to their stage. I was also lucky to work with an author who told me, often, that I had to write what I had to write; such freedom felt immensely pleasurable. That she likes what I came up with only adds to the pleasure, but she made a strong point: the writer also needs to be faithful to a personal vision and practice. Thus, "faithfulness" in adaptation is really a "house blend," different minor flavors kept in juggled balance so that the overall savor ends up bringing pleasure, insight, and lasting memory.
The "scoring" still moves on as the script sounds from the mouths of actors and new rhythms and colors come into play, but I am pleased with how it hangs together, and I look forward to trying this again.