Performing Jean Toomer: Reflections

Cane and Kabnis: Performing Jean Toomer


I began this project with the optimistic hope of being able to get at least a little of it on its feet before the end of the semester. That is, I wanted to see some of Jean Toomer’s words being spoken by actors, script in hand, standing up, with other actors. I didn’t expect a full production, but I was hoping for a few workshops with the goal in mind of a staged reading. An optimistic goal, yes, but not an impossible one. I’d like to think if I were to do it over again I might be able to put it together with more preparation. The biggest trouble I ran across is simple networking: theater is a collaborative action, and without the right people— not simply actors, everyone —  it is impossible to get anything done. If I was still in New York I could probably get a good group people together who would be excited by the project. But I simply didn’t know enough people at Yale, undergrad or YSD. This is my fault entirely, as I’ve largely stepped away from theatrical work in my two years in New Haven.

But I realized as I was doing the research for this project that this is probably a good thing. So much of this project depends on what happens in the workshop, that it is absolutely essential that all the background work is done before anyone sets foot in a rehearsal room. That means knowing the text inside out, knowing the history, the critical environment, the reception. In short, a person taking on this project needs to do their homework. It is best that I’m spending this semester gathering all the necessary background before making any steps towards a production. My hope is that the script, methods, and dramaturgy packet will serve as jumping off point.

Moving forward, I still want to see this play come to a workshop, and for that I would be most happy working with a director of color and serving as a writer/dramaturg. The question of point of view is very important to me — I have no desire to stage “my” version of Jean Toomer, or “my” adaptation of Kabnis. I want to present a set of material that a “we,” a diverse “we,” can use to explore what our Jean Toomer, our Kabnis, might look like.


Why Theater?

My desire to see Kabnis and Cane on stage was borne out of many things. For one thing it’s been too long since I’ve been in a rehearsal room and I miss it dearly. But this is also an important moment for art in general, and it’s important that we tell stories about the black experience in this country. (I write this as an adaptation of Tolstoy and a revival of Hello Dolly have swept the Tony award nominations — this is the year after Hamilton gave up hope that diverse casts and stories could find a home on Broadway.)

Mostly though, I’ve grown tired of my voice. Academic training encourages one to develop confidence in one’s voice and one’s opinions, and rewards those who can hold forth those opinions loudly and without interruption. I appreciate the need for this, but it’s not something I prefer. A certain receptivity, a capacity to listen and learn, is also necessary. After all, in English we are first and foremost readers, and the capacity we should be most proud of is our capacity for understanding. Sometimes that gets lost in the struggle to be heard though. I like to remind myself that I am not here to have opinions, but to work towards understandings. And for that one sometimes needs to step away from one’s own voice.

The thing about theater, that might not be obvious to an outsider, is that it is collaborative — and not simply collaborative, but necessarily collaborative. Without collaboration it simply evaporates. Unlike film, which is collaborative but highly curated (the director and editor pick and choose the final product), theater lives in its own chaotic moment, a moment built out of the simultaneous actions of dozens of people: actors, lighting and sound board operators, stage managers, costume designers, costume fitters, backstage crew. Even the ushers have a hand in crafting the moment by organizing the audience. In this liveness the writer and director vanish (in union shows, the director is not even allowed to be present after opening night). The writer and director help to bring the show to life, but once the show begins it has to live on its own, on its own terms, with its own collaborative heartbeat.

And because of that, playwriting needs to be open for collaboration. It has to be receptive to diverse interpretations. A written line needs to be specific enough to give insight into character and move a plot forward, but open enough that any actor speaking the line would say it differently. That the same actor would say it differently every night. Without that openness it’s just flat and uninteresting as a play, both to watch and to perform. Some critics call this subtext, but I think that’s not giving it enough credit — it’s text, the text of the performance, while the written lines are merely scaffolding.

The text of Kabnis as is, is perhaps not the most brilliant playwriting ever put to paper. But the text of Kabnis in the context of Cane is different. There, it is open. There, the character of Ralph Kabnis becomes both the writer of the poems and the failure of writing the poems. The underdeveloped women in Kabnis become the vivid and powerful women of vignettes like “Karintha” and “Fern.” The strange voice of the wind is also the voice of the poet, the voice of the abstract and unnamed reaper of “Harvest Song,” the voice of a whole way of life sinking into the earth. It is also contemporary reactions to these things, and reactions to those reactions. This is what interests me in Kabnis, not the words but the possibilities of understanding. And to explore these I feel a collaboration is essential.


Tentative Plan for a Devised Script

I envision Act I opening with Kabnis scene 1, expanded with portions of Cane Part I told in a halting, choreopoem style, where Kabnis-as-writer starts and stops in his composition, frustrated. Important events from Scene 2 can be put into Act I, such as the brick thrown through the window and Kabnis’s run through the night. But the structure of Kabnis being alone for much of this act can be preserved, if the rest of the cast plays the characters he is writing, the wind, songs heard from outside, and his dreams.

For Act II, one way to condense for time would be to excise scenes 2-4 and start immediately with the party. One thing this would do would be to keep the female characters, Cora, Stella, and Carrie K., on stage the entire time, instead of waiting backstage for an hour for the men to discuss manly things. I want to show Cora and Stella as essential to the plot, not only in the party scene, but as the animating force behind the writings of Cane part I. Excising 2-4 also allows one to get rid of the characters of Hanby and Mr. Ramsey, who are already better known for their impact on other characters than for their actual presence. The character of Lewis, who now does not appear until the end of Scene 3, can now appear at the beginning of Act II, jump-starting the Kabnis-Lewis rivalry at the heart of the play.

Act III can then be Scene 6, where a drunken Kabnis not only confronts his father-figure the old man Father John, but is haunted by the failure both of himself as a poet in capturing the South in words, and the failure of his race to rise out of slavery. Spirituals, prayers, poems. After the climax of scene 6 and Kabnis’s exit, the cast should perform “Harvest Song,” completing the spiritual circle that Toomer envisioned.


What Has Been Accomplished

The dramaturgical packet is a useful batch of information. If I had more time I would do a much more serious dive into rural south clothing in the 1920s, and what the shacks, schools, and workshops of Sparta, GA might have looked like. I tried to include a little bit of all the critical articles I read through, but of course that could always include more.

The formatted script of Kabnis is ready to go.

Another thing not included in these pages but a part of what’s been accomplished is the short mock rehearsal we staged at the American Lit in the World conference. There, I had volunteers from the audience come on stage and read a lightly edited version of the first vignette in Cane, “Karintha.” One young woman stood in as the title character and three men the men of the town. First the men read “Karintha” to her, defining her in front of them. Then, she read the rest of “Karintha” herself, and the men defined themselves in relation to her.

It was a mildly beautiful thing to behold, seeing these students, not actors, get into the mindset very quickly. What they produced was, as Avery said, was something like a “choreopoem,” like that of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, I was mostly interested in how the woman playing Karintha would react to these men telling her what Karintha is, versus her telling them. I think there is a lot of room in this small scene to play with irony and resistance. Watching them convinced me that not only is this a viable project, but it’s something that should have been done a long time ago.

All in all I feel like the project is in a good position, ready and able to take the next step into workshops.



The fact that this is not a full production yet is a shortcoming. It really should be! Someone should throw heaps of money and the best directors in the business at this project.

I used the dramaturgy packet to focus on Kabnis. Given more time I could have explored all the vignettes and short stories in detail, glossing especially the poems and vignettes of part I. The longer stories in Part II probably will not become part of this project, except perhaps in small excised portions. I could have made these cuttings and put them together in a packet of possible scripts, and probably will do so in the future.

Given time I could write a through-script of how a synthesis of Kabnis with the rest of Cane could look like. I’ve been avoiding this, since I want to see how people (actors of color) react to the texts as is first, before working through how they would fit together. I do worry that unless I write down some ideas how how these disparate pieces would fit together I may have a hard time explaining the project to people who aren’t already familiar with it.

Toomer wrote at least five other plays: Natalie Mann, Balo, The Sacred Factory, The Gallonwerps, and the unfinished A Drama of the Southwest. The Gallonwerps was originally a novel rewritten as a marionette play. A study of these, and on his overall failure to find an audience for his dramatic work, would be important to bring into a study of Kabnis, and I would add these to the dramaturgy packet given more time.




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