Actors portraying real-life figures will often pick up a history book to research their roles. But the homework hasn’t been easy for actors Frank Britton and Dane Figueroa Edidi. The characters they play in Erik Ehn’s new drama Shape — African-American entertainers Billy and Cordelia McClain, respectively — were very real. But although the husband-and-wife vaudeville duo were well-known in the early 20th century, they have virtually vanished from the nation’s memory.
“I knew almost nothing about the McClains before this play came into my life,” said Britton in an interview by phone last week. “They were never mentioned when I was in school. Not much biographical information is available on them. Their story was pretty much buried for many years.”
Now, after a long gap in the record, the McClains have pulled a re-appearing act. Following a workshop production in July with Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, Shape is getting a full-blown staging in DC from September 20 to October 6. Produced at the Atlas Performing Arts Center by DC performance ensemble force/collision and directed by John Moletress, the play sifts out some nitty-gritty from what small information can be found on Billy and Cordelia.
Shape opens in 1900 in Brooklyn during the heyday of “Black America,” an enormous variety show that both showcased and exploited the black experience in America through song, dance, storytelling, and vaudeville comedy acts. Billy and Cordelia’s life performing on this circuit leads the audience into a multi-layered, highly stylized exploration of our nation’s racial landscape barely more than 100 years ago, and of the people commodified and all too often abandoned in the name of entertainment.
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” said Britton. “Almost no one knows about the McClains. The play, like a lot of Erik Ehn’s work, is painstakingly researched and quite dense. On the page it’s a fairly short play, but there’s so much here to mine.”
While the show does cull from historical facts to highlight a complex and emotionally intimate love story, it also builds ambitiously outward. Shape is the final installment in Ehn’s 17-part Soulographie cycle of plays, which delves deep into modern America and its role in the history of genocide.
“Genocide is not just killing,” Ehn explained in American Theatre magazine last July. “It’s the enforcement of historical obscurity or the forbidding of a people to constitute themselves in a sustainable memory.”
How apropos. Billy and Cordelia McClain hold center stage in a detailed, historically rich drama, but they’re engimas. The performers of Shape must find the keys to unlock these forgotten folks. But how do you honor someone’s real legacy if it’s nowhere to be found?
Edidi has some simple advice: you have to respect the facts, then go beyond them. “This is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he said, also speaking by phone. “But I have found great joy in working on this. I’m doing a lot of things with body and words and movement that are new to me, and I’m finding it’s refreshing to go deeper and deeper.”
That a man could play Cordelia in this production was not a given. But after seeing Edidi perform cabaret, Moletress and Ehn decided to give it a go. Given the cross-gendering common in African-American vaudeville acts of the time, Edidi considered it a fitting opportunity.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a leading lady,” he said. “And right now it feels felt like my patience is starting to pay off. I was touched that John and Erik were up for it, especially in the midst of the first staging of an original work.”
Edidi has also composed music for several of his monologues and choreographed his own dance. “It’s very exciting to be able to utilize my full skill set for this project. This is a non-traditional play, so we have found a lot of ways to make the show magical. The audience probably won’t know what to think at first. But I’m so proud of this piece, and I think it makes for a really important piece of art.”
Shape stirs an immense pot of ideas. The cast of 10 play various roles in a minimalist staging, designed to focus on the humanity underneath all the period details. The script jumps through time and across the country. Britton and Edidi have to go far together as man and wife: from the shoestring travails of “Black America” to the harsh glamour of Hollywood (Billy McClain appeared in the Shirley Temple movie “Dimples,” among other background roles) to the Tulsa race riot in 1921, which effectively decimated the wealthiest black community in the country overnight.
“Seeing the evolution of the play and discovering it as it goes along has been eye-opening for me,” said Britton. “Dane and I are onstage the whole time, growing older as time passes. So we capture the McClain’s fearlessness, but also about their most intimate problems.”
Edidi is an old friend, he explains. “He and I just clicked so well. We’ve been working on this play for so long that it really feels like we’re an old married couple now.”
“I’ve always admired Frank as a performer and enjoyed watching him, said Edidi. “I was thrilled when I learned I’d be playing opposite Frank. He’s absolutely willing to engage with me.”
And they will have many weeks more to deepen their stage marriage. Once Shape closes here the show will travel to New York, where it will play at La MaMa E.T.C. alongside other Ehn plays in the Soulographie cycle, produced by other companies. “I’m looking forward to continuing this story together,” Britton said.
In order to figure out what makes Billy and Cordelia live and breathe, Britton and Edidi have needed to embrace period styles. But they have also had to explode those styles and imagine new ways of expressing themselves. Britton gives one great example: at a certain point in Shape he performs a rapid-fire re-enactment of the entire film of Dimples, all by himself.
“It’s an insane monologue,” he said. “Billy McClain had lots of uncredited film appearances, and I believe “Dimples” was his only credited role. So I tackle a number of characters from the film in the same sequence, including Shirley herself. Honestly I couldn’t crack it for a long while. But I had a breakthrough the other day, and it’s finally clicked. Once we discovered how active and physical it has to be, it enabled me to let go of my thoughts and just run with it.”
But finding Shape is about more than just combing the archive. “We’re doing this show in a stripped-down way because these issues are still with us,” Edidi said. “People are still lynched. People are still killed for their race or their gender or their sexuality. We want this show to allow for some honesty. Many of our wounds from the past are still open, and new wounds open every day. That’s the storyline we’re looking to build on here and in New York.”