News & Articles
Letter from the Artistic Director on Carter's Way.
2007-2008, Volume 3
by Martha Lavey
Carter’s Way continues our season long conversation about what it means to be an American. It is also the first of our season’s offerings written by an ensemble member, Eric Simonson, who will also direct. Eric wrote the play originally for a production at Kansas City Rep where it had a successful run in 2005. He has significantly re-written the play for its Steppenwolf production. This development process, undertaken with the dramaturgical assistance of Steppenwolf’s Director of New Play Development, Ed Sobel, is a vivid example of the commitment Steppenwolf has made to the development of new work for the canon of American plays. New plays need theaters that will commit to their premiere productions, of course, but as importantly, new plays need theaters that will commit to their evolution with a second production. Steppenwolf is proud to be home to the revised production of Carter’s Way.
Eric wrote Carter’s Way using the myth of Orpheus as his model. He wanted to create a play that spoke to the history of Kansas City where the play premiered. The city’s history of jazz music inspired the setting and characters of the play and the Orpheus myth provided a narrative structure. What emerged was a play that focused on the character of a musician, Oriole Carter, modeled on the jazz musicians of the late 1930s, a period of rich musical activity in Kansas City. What Eric discovered through that first production was that the characters of Carter’s Way had taken on a life and authenticity that allowed him to imagine a new course for the play, sprung free from the narrative of the original myth. Steppenwolf’s production of Carter’s Way revises the original production in the recreation of its second act. The play’s themes, expressed in the narrative, have a more focused and concentrated outcome.
The play is set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1935. The central character, to whom the play owes its title, is an African-American jazz saxophone player. Race is significant here: while the art itself was being driven by a largely Black contingent of musicians, the industry was still almost entirely controlled by White businessmen. This intersection of race and power is at the heart of Carter’s Way. Oriole Carter is an artist who is committed to owning his work. He does so in a cultural environment that permits him little agency in that authorship.
The race/power dynamic is echoed in the dynamic between gender and power. Oriole falls in love with Eunice Fey who, as a White woman, may have access to social spheres closed to Oriole, but is, herself, restricted in her agency by virtue of her gender. Neither Oriole nor Eunice own social power and so neither has the opportunity to author their own fate. Choice, for both, is defiance, resistance and, very possibly, self-destruction.
Carter’s Way is a love story, the story of an artist, and the story of the cultural forces that impact both the artist and the lovers. The politics of class, of race, of gender are inextricably bound up in the personal and interpersonal choices of Oriole and Eunice, but those forces echo out into the lives of all of the characters. One of the realities that the play traces is the intersecting worlds of Black musicianship and commerce—a commerce controlled by the illicit business structure of the Mob. Pewee Abernathy, an African-American club owner, may control his own club, the Planet Mars where Oriole plays, but Planet Mars is subject to the directives of mobster Johnny Russo. Johnny may have authority in his transactions with Pewee, but he is subject to the authority of his mob boss, Jack Thorpe. The play keeps introducing us to these concentric rings of autonomy and authority, reminding us of the limits of personal choice when the forces of commerce, of race, of gender and class hierarchy, pressurize and determine the parameters of our world.
Johnny Russo is an interesting figure in the play. He is a nodal point in the multiple relationships of the play: Mob bagman for the Planet Mars, boyfriend to Eunice, deputy to Boss Thorpe, a would-be independent agent in the development of a radio broadcast and recording enterprise of Oriole’s music. As a White man in a highly-charged dynamic of racial power, he would seem to have authority. But as the employee of Boss Thorpe, Johnny is utterly dependent in his realm of choice—he lords his authority over Eunice, over Peewee, tries to do so over Oriole—but in the end of it all, he is subject to the directives of Boss Thorpe. The lesson here is that commerce rules the day. Money trumps race, trumps gender, trumps talent, as the ultimate determinant of authority and choice.
This is an American story, this story of love, artistry and commerce. It makes the personal political, it extends our conversation about American identity. With Carter’s Way, we are able to examine that identity through the lens of 1935, measuring how we have changed and what endures.
It is very exciting for Steppenwolf to present the work of our ensemble member, Eric Simonson, and to support the development of Carter’s Way. The development of this work is much abetted by a strong Steppenwolf ensemble cast—James Vincent Meredith, K. Todd Freeman, Ora Jones, Bob Breuler—who are joined by the wonderful Chicago actors, Anne Adams, (a School at Steppenwolf graduate), Keith Kupferer and Danny McCarthy. We look forward to the final component of this play’s development: our conversation with you, our audiences.