Compass Rose Theater is producing Patricia Henley’s If I Hold My Tongue, set in Baltimore, MD, which opens September 17. She is the author of three novels, four short story collections, two chapbooks of poetry, a stage play, and numerous essays. Her first novel, Hummingbird House (MacMurray & Beck, 1999), was a finalist for the National Book Award and The New Yorker Fiction Prize. Pantheon published her second novel, In the River Sweet, and it was widely praised in newspapers and magazines. In the River Sweet was a Border’s Original Voices. Her first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star (Graywolf, 1986), was the winner of the Montana First Book Award. Engine Books published her fourth collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks in 2011. She lives in Frostburg, Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter @patriciajhenley.
What can you say in a play you can’t say in another medium?
I love the collaborative aspect of theater. It’s exciting to see what the actors and the director bring to the words I’ve written. And every performance is ephemeral and different. Having a live audience creates an intimacy, an immediacy, I can’t have writing in any other genre.
What type of theater most excites you?
I want to be privy to secrets and revelations. I want to be hammered with some new understanding of human nature. This human nature might be comic or a dark exploration of circumstances, but I want to walk away having learned something new. I appreciate theater that shines a light on some heretofore obscure injustice or repression. One of my favorite recent plays is Casa Valentina.
What starts a play moving in your imagination?
If I Hold My Tongue started out of curiosity. I wanted to know what challenges lay in wait for prostitutes who are struggling to get off the street.
Describe your writing day.
I’m definitely a morning writer. I like to have coffee as I write in a notebook. Then, after walking my dogs, I go to the computer.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
IF I HOLD MY TONGUE
September 17 – 27
Compass Rose Theater
49 Spa Road
Annapolis, MD 21401
Details and Tickets
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
This play deals with a segment of the underclass in Baltimore City, two white women and two black women, thrown together in their common longing to change their lives. Since racial and class tensions in Baltimore have been in the news recently, I hope to add to the dialogue with this play.
What female playwrights have influenced your writing?
Nora Ephron, for the honesty and humor of her characters in Love, Loss, and What I Wore. And Lynn Nottage for Ruined. David Rooney in VARIETY wrote that Ruined is “emotionally scorching ” and that it takes the audience inside an “unthinkable reality.” Nottage went to Africa to do the research for Ruined. I traveled to Central America and Vietnam to do research for both of my novels and I know how hard that can be, yet how necessary for authenticity. For that entree into the Democratic Republic of Congo and the world of the characters in Ruined, I’m grateful. I started writing If I Hold My Tongue after spending time interviewing prostituted women in Baltimore. So Nottage’s commitment to down-in-the-street research is something I admire.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a play titled Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters, set in a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta. Five women in their fifties and sixties gather for a reunion and the sparks fly.
Answer this: “If I weren’t a playwright, I would be … “
I’d love to be an actor!
Anything you would like to add?
It’s a joy to be a part of the larger Women’s Voices Festival, to know that forty-four women playwrights* will see their work produced during the festival. In a certain sense, I think that producing a gritty play like If I Hold My Tongue is risky for Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis. Lucinda Merry-Browne — the director — sees the play as redemptive and worth the risk.
*Editor’s note: The number of playwrights in the festival has grown. As of now, the work of nearly 60 women will be featured.