“A black man did it! A big black man did it!”
The room erupted in laughter during a reading of Tracey Wilson’s satirical play The Story. The reading, attended by about 50 graduate and undergraduate students and distinguished faculty members, was presented by a group of Temple graduate theater students.
Wilson earned her graduate degree in creative writing from Temple in the early ’90s. She returned to Temple last Thursday as part of the Creative Writing program’s Poets & Writers Series.
Wilson’s play is bursting with sarcasm, instigating characters, and racial and social tension. It is the story of an ambitious young black female reporter investigating the shooting of a white man in a “deserted” city neighborhood.
The graduate theatre students presented a reading of the prologue and first two scenes of “The Story.” After the presentation Wilson told the story of her struggle to become a successful writer.
“I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in fifth grade,” Wilson told the audience. “My teacher used to have short story writing contests at the end of the day. And I won them all but one.”
Wilson’s teacher encouraged her to pursue writing. She began attneding Rutgers University as a journalism major, but quickly realized that was not the career she wanted to pursue.
Apparently, Wilson’s creative side got the better of her. “My professor actually realized that I made up a few things in my articles,” Wilson confessed, smiling. “He told me not to be a journalist.”
Still wanting to write, Wilson switched her major to English. After graduating from Rutgers, she pursued a master’s in creative writing at Temple. She described the atmosphere in the her program as “a cocoon… a place where I could develop my craft and meet some really wonderful writers.”
Her graduate thesis, a novel titled I Don’t Know Why That Caged Bird Won’t Shut Up, is a satire that takes jabs at famous and established authors – Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is one of them.
Joan Mellen, a professor of fiction writing and the recipient of the 2004 Great Teacher Award, taught Wilson during her graduate studies.
“Tracey was so wild, so funny, so hysterical,” Mellen said. “I got her an agent for I Don’t Know Why, but [the agent] was too timid. She was afraid of the manuscript [because it could be controversial], and we could see why.”
Wilson received thirty rejection letters in one day for her manuscript. “One agent returned my manuscript and wrote ‘I hope this never gets published’ on it,” Wilson said. “I had a little bit of writer’s block after that.”
After working a few unfulfilling jobs, Wilson decided to take a playwriting class. “It was great because there was no pressure,”she said. “I wasn’t expecting anything to happen with it.”
Wilson immersed herself in learning the craft of playwriting. She cites George C. Wolfe’s play “Color Museum” as a powerful influence on her work.
Wilson wrote “Exhibit #9,” her first full-length play, during the class. The result: a Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship from the New York Theatre Workshop, the first award of many. The play was produced twice.
Her third full-length play, “The Story,” was produced by both The Joseph Papp Public Theatre and The Long Wharf Theatre in 2003. The Story received an excellent review in The New Yorker.
The review caught the attention of a Temple creative writing student, whobrought it to the attention of her professor, Joan Mellen.
“I’m so proud,” Mellen said. “Most writers don’t become this successful. It’s really extraordinary. She just stuck with it. That’s what writers have to do – stick with it and believe in yourself.”
Mellen contacted Wilson and invited her to speak for the Poets & Writers Series. The Series, which has been running since the inception of Temple’s Creative Writing Program 20 years ago, invites successful and respected writers “to speak to members of both the Temple community and the local Philadelphia arts scene,” according to the program’s Web site.
“It’s fun to be back at Temple,” Wilson said. “I’m having a great time. It’s very warm here, it’s nice to see everybody again.”
A graduate student in the Creative Writing Program is also invited to read a selection of his or her work at each session. On Thursday, second-year student Shinelle Espaillat read a selection from the novella she is currently writing titled Crossroads.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company is producing Wilson’s “The Story” in January and February of 2005. Kalif Johnson, a Temple undergraduate senior studying theater, is planning to audition for the show.
“From what I saw of the play tonight I really enjoyed it,” he said. “It was very interesting because she has a way with words. I’m a writer myself, and it’s hard to write comedy into a play, but [Wilson] did it so well.”
Other writers scheduled to speak for the Poets & Writers Series this semester are Fiona Templeton (Sept. 30), Jonathon Lethem (Oct.7), Tracie Morris (Oct. 28), and Caroline Bergvall (Nov. 11). Beat poet Anne Waldman is also scheduled to attend a reading and discussion in late October. All readings are held on Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. in room 222 of TUCC.
Lindsey Walker can be reached at email@example.com.