When you’re neck-deep in graduate studies and working to earn your doctorate in English literature, as Kwakiutl Dreher was in the late 1990s, the last thing you’d seemingly want to do is add another writing project to the stack assigned to you.
But amid the text analyses, literary criticisms and submissions to future-determining academics, Dreher carved out time to write something that wasn’t meant to be submitted for anyone else’s approval.
“I wrote the play to relieve myself of the weight of graduate school,” said Dreher, now an associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I wrote it for me, for me.”
Inspired by snippets of conversations she overheard growing up in Columbia, S.C., Dreher completed a script for a one-woman play in which she intended to perform.
On Feb. 6, she’ll take the Haymarket Theatre stage in the latest adaptation of her play, “In a Smoke-filled Room, Color Matters.”
The play builds a story around those pieces of conversations, which often were uttered from or about Dreher’s fraternal grandmother, something like, “And girl, she was mad!”
Mad about what, Dreher never knew for certain, but she had an idea. There was an often-tense dynamic between her grandmother and mother, a relationship she said any audience members with in-laws will recognize to some degree.
But there also are dynamics specific to the era and region -- the South -- that form major themes in her play.
The major crux of the play “is color consciousness in the African-American Community,” Dreher wrote in an email. “‘In A Smoke-filled Room, Color Matters’ hinges upon issues of light skin and dark skin complexions that have so divided the African-American community. This division is rooted in the notorious plantation regime and was passed down from generation to generation. It is a division that really has impeded some interactions in the community.”
From this came Dreher’s main character, Azalea Smith. A seamstress, Smith is a woman of slight build whose light skin could pass for white, and whose dark-skinned husband leaves her in the 1940s. She eventually moves in with her son's family.
Azalea doesn’t have the tough-but-loving persona of, say, Tyler Perry’s Madea character, Dreher said. Like Dreher’s grandmother, Azalea keeps her thoughts on her struggles mostly to herself. There’s a stereotype in media that older African-American women will tell it like it is, said Dreher, who also researches film and visual culture.
“They’re big; they’re loud,” Dreher said.
Dreher said she knows some Madeas, but she also knows those who dealt with things differently, like Azalea.
“My intent is to balance the image continuum,” she said.
Azalea, for the most part, internalizes her struggles through life. Born in the 1900s, she grows up on a Southern tobacco farm, raises two children mostly on her own and lives through the era where her trade went from a necessity in the African-American community to one replaced by the ready-to-wear nature of department stores -- the kind in which Dreher, when she was growing up, remembers her mother not being allowed to try on clothing.
In the South, Azalea was expected to endure life’s hardships internally, Dreher said. “You went to church and you cried it out, and then you went at home and dealt with it.”
With “In A Smoke-filled Room, Color Matters,” Dreher said, audiences get to see the veil of silence lifted.
“By telling her story, she releases the smoke of color-consciousness that has filled her interior rooms of love, joy, hope and, most important, self-forgiveness,” Dreher wrote.
The story, for the most part, has remained the same since she first performed the play over a decade ago. But those who saw it years ago might notice a change in the way Dreher realized Azalea should be portrayed.
“I gave her an elegance,” Dreher said. “This woman who only has a third-grade education, but she had a Ph.D. in knowing her fabrics and her artistry at the sewing machine.”