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Emmy broadcast inspires CT playwright to adapt 'Pygmalion' for a Harlem setting

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Playwright/director Lawrence Thelen, of Haddam, CT, got the inspiration for his new play “Higgins in Harlem,” while watching the Emmy Awards on television back in 2003. Comedian Wanda Sykes was the host, delivering her quips and jokes in her typical black twang, he recalls. Stopping by comedian Bill Cosby in the audience, Sykes began to joke and josh with him about his career, but he remained silent. This awkward one-sided conversation went on for quite a while, Thelen reports, until Sykes finally asked Cosby why he thought the original “Cosby Show” had been so successful. He sighed and said simply, “We spoke English.”

Thelen immediately thought of Professor Henry Higgins and Cockney flower-seller Eliza Dolittle of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and subsequently of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” fame and their famous struggle over the proper use and pronunciation of the English language. He wondered if there could be a parallel with the situation voiced by Cosby that could somehow fit into the scenario developed almost a hundred years previously by Shaw across the Atlantic.

He pondered that idea off and on for almost 8 years, while he pursued a career as a free-lance theatrical director, playwright and real estate manager. While talking to a producer of a summer theater about new ways to reach contemporary audiences, he wondered aloud how an all-black version of “Pygmalion” would work. That led him to thinking about where to set such an adaptation, ultimately settling on the Harlem Renaissance period in the mid-1930’s, that great flourishing of African-American culture that produced such figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois and concert singer Roland Hayes.

As he further researched the idea, he discovered that there was a natural conflict at the time between the wealthier African-American community of Sugar Hill in West Harlem and the street life of poorer Harlem residents who were negatively impacted by the Great Depression. The cultures would often cross paths on 125th Street, as venues such as the Apollo Theater attracted diverse audiences interested in jazz and other music of the period. He also explored the language differences within the African-American community at the time and realized that there was indeed potential for such an adaptation.

Thelen, who has worked locally at the Ivoryton Playhouse and Goodspeed Musicals, where he served as Producing Associate and Literary Manager, had submitted his resume to the Playhouse on Park and began discussions with Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Sean Harris about doing some work there. Harris indicated that he was looking for “something that had some familiarity for an audience, but offered a new take on the subject.” Thelen’s recently-completed play, “Higgins in Harlem” seemed to fit the bill.

“I was very conscious of trying to make the play a good experience for both the audience and the actors,” Thelen reveals. “I kept the narrative arc of ‘Pygmalion’ and give a nod to Shaw throughout the work. I knew I was taking something recognized as great and adapting it into a new play that I hoped would reflect the experience of black Americans.”

Thelen acknowledges that he could be opening himself to some criticism being a white playwright adapting a show about African-Americans in Harlem featuring an all-black cast. In recent years, though, Broadway has seen Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ staged with an African-American cast, while several years ago, Yale Rep did an all-black version of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” so the concept of staging all-black versions of contemporary classics was indeed an accepted idea.

Once his nine-member cast was in place for the West Hartford production, Thelen says that he enlisted the actors to help develop the appropriate sound and intonations for each of their characters. “I gave the words,” he adds, “but relied on them for the details.”

He also found that after they read the script, his cast expressed their appreciation for how well the characters were depicted and how the situations unfolded. In fact, actor Bob Johnson, who plays the renamed Conrad “Connie” Pickering in this production and who is himself a Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes enthusiast, revealed that he “has been waiting for someone to write a black version of ‘Pygmalion’ in his program biography. Through the cast’s comments, Thelen continued, “I was able to relax, knowing that people would take my intentions well.”

Thelen is originally from Palos Verde, California and met his future wife, Irene, while working in theater in New Jersey. They moved to Haddam in 2000 deciding that this would be a good place to bring up a family. They now have two daughters, Julie and Johanna, who are approaching their teenage years. Thanks to some real estate investments, Thelen balances his theatrical career with property management, assuring that his directing assignments don’t take him too far afield from his family. He usually does one or two shows a season at the Ivoryton Playhouse and concentrates on his writing at home, where he can participate in his daughters’ lives.

He has written a number of short plays and musicals, including “Ichabod Crane Tells All,” which is featured in the anthology, “Best American Short Plays, 2011-2012,” as well as a comic opera “Pyramus and Thisbee” which was premiered at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He’s also the author of “The Show Makers: Great Directors of the American Musical Theater,” now in paperback. He finds that he likes to direct musicals and comedies, particularly comedies he describes as “having a hard edge to them, comedies that have an underlying seriousness to them.” He has the same approach to musicals as well, saying “I’d rather do a production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ than ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’” he admits, appreciating what he calls “the depth.” In that vein, he will be directing a production of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Ivoryton Playhouse this summer.

“I am fortunate in that I don’t have to make my living exclusively writing,” he admits. “I can focus on projects that interest me and fascinate me. That to me is what is fun. That’s all I need to get out of it. I am not solely dependent upon (my writing) to live.” That said, however, Thelen is quick to add that “I’d love to see some other theater pick this up and stage it,” about “Higgins in Harlem.” He states that “I think this play is commercial, with an asterisk, meaning that some producers might think it risky or controversial, but I think it is a viable work. I hope it can have a life beyond here.”

“Higgins in Harlem” will find Professor Henry Higgins in Hartford, or West Hartford more properly, through Sunday, March 23 at the Playhouse on Park. For information and tickets, call (860) 523-5900 ext. 10 or visit the Playhouse’s website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” next to the byline at the top of this article. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox when it is posted.

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