The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove

From a Chicago Tribune interview with playwright Regina Taylor (by Jenn Q. Goddu)

Q. Who was Sarah Breedlove?

A. Sarah Breedlove is the given name of Madam C.J. Walker. She was an entrepreneur, a great businesswoman, a political activist, a feminist. She was the first freeborn child of [freed] slaves who worked her way from the mud of the Delta on a plantation to becoming one of the wealthiest self-made millionaires in the United States. She did that with hair-care products for black women. She was one of the first dark-skinned black women to put her image on her own beauty product and she ended her life in a mansion next door to the Rockefellers.

Q. Why did she appeal to you as a heroine?

A. She's fascinating. She is a person who made herself from scratch. She invented herself. There was no one like her before so there is no role model for her. She inspired so many women. ... Black women who were making roughly $1.50 a [day] as field hands or as maids could, as
a representative of Madam Walker, make $50 and $100 and more. She empowered them as businesswomen owning their own businesses.

Q. Why is her story relevant today?

A. How we name ourselves. How we see ourselves. How we want the world to see us. How we touch other people as a reflection of ourselves.

The play itself was a lovely, brutal thing, anchored by a ferocious performance by L. Scott Caldwell as Madam C.J. Walker, clear-eyed and unsentimental, determined, and primed above all else for survival. This was a woman who would not have allowed herself to fail, and whether or not she succeeded honorably was most decidedly beside the point (art is not made for people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity). What she gained from her success, how she used it, what it cost her, and what it cost the people she loved -- that was the point. Isn't that always the point?

And then: a post-performance discussion with the artistic staff, including two of the actors (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, also a marvel, and Libya Pugh).


The chief problem with post-performance discussions that allow members of the audience to ask questions is that members of the audience insist on asking questions.

My favorite, after a two-hour-plus play about the rise and struggle of this fascinating, complicated woman (paraphrasing): "Why did the author go out of her way to focus on the negative aspects of Madam Walker's life?"

I totally remember asking myself the exact same thing the day before, during "The Devil Wears Prada," when everybody was being so nasty to that poor little skinny tall girl: why can't we just watch Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway run through a field of daisies for a couple of hours? They can eat bonbons and play with puppies, and laugh and laugh and laugh, and they'll be happy, and we'll be happy, and then won't the world be right and bright and happy?

Please: who the hell wants to watch people be happy for two hours? Artists don't write plays, or books, about happy people, and you wouldn't want to see or read it if they did. Happy is boring: always. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White may get their princes in the end, but they're miserable until the very last line. Because if they weren't, you would be. That's called a story.

And another gentleman, expressing his displeasure over the fact that much of "contemporary" drama (and particularly at the Goodman, apparently) consists of "telling, "not "showing." Ibsen always showed! he said. There he was, always showing! So why didn't we get to see Booker T. Washington? He's mentioned several times in the play; Madam Walker reveres him (at least initially) and corresponds with him, is turned away by him (because, of course, she is a woman) -- so where, for the love of God, was Booker T. Washington?

Dear Sir:

Booker T. Washington was not a character in this play. He was a figure of historical note, certainly, but his presence here was not required because his was not the story the playwright was telling. If you would like to write a story about Booker T. Washington, you are perfectly welcome to do so, and of course we wish you well with all of that. In the meantime, please come again, and sit in your seat, and then go home.

Yours truly,

The rest of us

(suttonhoo has more, and she's not so cranky about it)