About the author:
Over the last three decades, Regina Taylor has had not one, but three versatile careers as an acclaimed actress, playwright and director. On the Great White Way, for example, Taylor has the distinction of being the first black woman to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. On the small screen, she garnered a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of housekeeper and civil rights activist Lilly Harper in I’ll Fly Away. As a playwright, she penned and directed the 2002 musical Crowns, a coming-of-age story accompanied by gospel and hip-hop music. This season, Taylor is back off-Broadway at Signature Theatre Company as writer and director of stop. reset., an ensemble drama that explores the inevitability of a future without books. Below, she recounts the inspiration for her new passion project and remembers her own childhood fascination with literature.
I was blown away when Jim Houghton, founder of Signature Theatre, gave me a call with the offer of becoming part of "Residency Five." Signature would commission me to write three plays that they would produce over a five-year period. Writers in residency five include Will Eno, Annie Baker, Martha Clarke, Katori Hall, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins and Kenneth Lonergan. What a great opportunity as a writer! Houghton encouraged me to think outside the box. Where to begin? What did I need to say?
I started looking around. Across the street from where I live—my favorite bookstore, where I would browse every other day—closed its doors.
E-books are now outselling physical books. Soon there may be no more bookstores or libraries. Schools are switching to computers. Young people growing up may not have the experience of actual books. What does that mean in terms of how we look at the world? What will take the place of books—a means of passing on history and memory—in a world where legacy can be deleted? I became fearful of the prospect.
Suddenly I felt like my Grandma, who didn’t believe man had walked on the moon, saying, “Can’t see nobody up there,” when she looked into the night sky—searching. And at a certain point she refused to be shoved onto another contraption. Done.
Cell phones, iPads, Google Glass, Twitter, 3-D copying machines, cyborg enhancements, cochlear implants, pacemakers, embedded technology, the drive to inhabit Mars. The trajectory of change in this moment is astronomical. How can we keep up? And in adapting, who do we become? What do we hold on to? What can we afford to let go of?
stop. reset. takes place a few months from now. It is the end of 2013. Chicago. We are in the second term of our first African-American president. We are marking the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington and the bombings in Birmingham. Gay marriage rights were set before the Supreme Court this year; abortion rights for women were argued in Texas. People are questioning if we are moving forward or backward.
Books, to me, are vessels of history and memory. They have helped define who I am. As a child, one of my earliest memories was being on the floor with my mother with construction paper, crayons and scissors—writing my own children’s books. I don’t think I was more than five. My mother empowered me in teaching me how to imagine worlds through my own lens and make them concrete—a survival tool for an African-American female born of a single mother in the south. This tool helped me to create my own names, as the world is constantly naming me even before my first breath.
We have a tendency to look at others through the lens of history and memory. Certain assumptions grab hold beyond our own memory and history. Certain things we want to hold onto. Other things we want to let go—and write our own. Breaking open a book is like standing on cracking ice. You fall through and travel backward and forward in time, submerged in the life of someone you think is different than you. Last page, you return to yourself with different eyes.
stop. reset. is about Alexander Ames, owner of Alexander Ames Chicago Black Book Publisher. He is on a deadline demanded by a clause in a recent merger. He must adapt or become extinct. He is challenged to get the company up to speed with technology. He must also cut staff when the staff has already been cut to the bone. Ames begins to question each of his workers, all of whom are 40 and over, to see whose position is obsolete. Each represents the multiple constructs of identity. Ames has to question himself on this day, as businessman, African-American, husband and father. He has to question all the traditions and principles on which he stands.
It is when he begins to have a conversation with J—a 19-year-old janitor—that things take a turn. J is semiliterate—and the most tech-savvy person in the office. Everyone assumes they know where J is from. He is the present day incarnation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Ames, whose only heir has died, begins to think the young J may have insight into preserving his legacy. The only problem is that J, a disconnected soul, has no interest in the past. Ames tries to negotiate with J to embed himself into the future.
As Ames and J wrestle with each other’s perspectives, the play rushes into the surreal and sci-fi of our present future. The play lives on stage at Signature Theatre through amazing collaborators: designers Neil Patel (set), Shawn Sagady (projections), Karen Perry (costumes), Rob Kaplowitz (sound) and Lap Chi Chu (lights); amazing actors Carl Lumbly, Ismael Cruz Cordova, LaTanya Jackson, Teagle Bougere, Michi Barall and Donald Mackay. All have brought their unique voices to create a shared language.
stop.reset. also lives through students I’ve worked with from Chicago Urban League, SAIC, DePaul University and Columbia College as well as New York’s Theater Development Fund and Rosie’s Kids. Through a series of workshops the students had dialogues about the play and created their own pieces in response. What they created is featured at the Signature Theatre and at stop-reset.com. It is a play that challenges boundaries of how we experience theater in this high tech age.