As a company member in the improv group Playback Memphis, Ann Perry Wallace deftly slips into the lived experiences of real, everyday people. The process is quick. The ensemble takes less than a minute to absorb a story told by an audience member and then play that moment from their lives back to them.
The process for Ann’s latest project was not quick. The actor who also writes fiction, children’s stories, and plays, has taken a much more laborious deep dive into the pieces of the life of an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. This coming weekend, she’ll be performing her original one-woman show Live Rich Die Poor based on the life of Zora Neale Hurston.
African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is perhaps best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she also wrote plays, folklore, and several articles and essays over a career that spanned more than 30 years. She is commonly regarded as “the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century.” By many accounts, she had a big personality—brilliant, bold, confident, and charming. Those are the characteristics that Ann Perry Wallace says drew her in and made her want to unearth and present more of Hurston’s story.
This is Ann’s first-ever one-person show but she’s not completely on her own. She has workshopped the show with friends and directors from the local theatre community, and she’s working with her husband Phil Darius Wallace, an actor who is well-known for his tour de force portrayals of Frederick Douglas and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We talked to Ann about what inspired her about Hurston’s story, what it’s like to work closely with her husband on such a big undertaking, and what it took to pack such a full life into a captivating 75-minute journey.
Are there parts of your life that parallel with Zora Neale Hurston’s? What about her resonated so deeply within you to make you want to develop this show?
I admired Zora Neale Hurston’s story. The sheer will to get educated and pour out all of those stories was miraculous to me given the time period and her life story, and reading her story I wished I could be as bold and tenacious in the face of tragedy and difficulty. Ironically, Lisa, I almost did this show as a parallel: a piece of my life, then a mirroring piece of her life and back and forth. I quickly realized how naked that made me feel and that I wasn’t ready.
I think the things in my life that reminded me of her life were the opposites. She was a big mouth, feisty, charming, Miss Popularity, life-of-the-party type on the outside. I think the part of me that shrinks sometimes and feels unseen was intrigued, fascinated by and in admiration of her ability to not give a damn about the consequences or what folks thought.
And there were certainly consequences. She would leave a man in a heartbeat despite needing financial stability so badly. She quit a stable job as a college professor. Can you say ‘What about your benefits, sis?’
Can you share the process of developing this original work? How long has it taken to bring it to life onstage? How deeply did you have to research her life and what was your method?
To develop this work I did a lot of reading of her work, biographies, her autobiography, her letters, essays, etc. I even went to the first Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, FL. I began collecting all the stories that interested me about her life and pretty soon realized I had way too much stuff. The outline I made was just a rehash of her timeline so I quickly realized that I had to eke out the story that was begging me to tell through her life, so for years it sat and sat and I would come back to it and still not know.
Finally, I began this process of interviewing characters and found some techniques in solo writing books and online classes. Some of the best tools for me were pretending to peek in her childhood home window and describe what I saw. Another tool I learned from an online teacher was interviewing the characters. Ultimately, I think these are mechanisms to trigger your imagination but it worked.
The story that wanted to be told emerged and that was a story of using every talent, every dream, every gift in every crevice of who you are, in service to this world, your legacy, your earthly fulfillment so that you are empty when you die. You have denied the grave your gifts and thus “Live Rich Die Poor,” poor meaning empty.
I noticed that Darius is directing and the two of you are powerhouses at this kind of work. How has it been to work on this together?
I enjoyed working with Darius on this project because he is so supportive and he’s so good at this work. He’s really kind and compassionate as a director and teacher and I feel safe with him. I actually found myself astonished because naturally, I think he’s brilliant and talented, but I found myself saying, “Wow this man REALLY knows what he’s talking about.” So, I really enjoyed the process. And it’s not over. I am still tweaking the writing which means he has to adjust direction, which he is happy to do.
How do you stay focused and energized in a one-woman show with no breaks and no one to vibe with but the audience? Do you prefer it to ensemble work?
Knowing where I am going in the story and the arc that I am building and the big pay off at the end for the audience motivates me. Also, this work for me is a master class in mastering beats and being in the moment. So, I am learning a ton as I work.
I love words also, so I think I string together words that excite me and that are fun to say.
Lastly, I think I have it timed just about perfectly. Anything over 75 minutes for a solo performer and you will probably lose your audience. That, I learned from Darius and director Tony Horne. I actually prefer ensemble work because you share the load, but I am learning to love solo work. I chose it so I need to love it.
Can you share about the experience of being part of the Memphis theatre community? What role has this community played in your ability to create and perform new work?
It has been especially important to my growth as an actor. When I couldn’t do a typical 3-to-4-week rehearsal and 3/4 weekend run show because I had young children, Playback Memphis was a Godsend because you could take an acting job when you wanted. It was my creative lifeline.
Here recently I did something I created (I think I created it) called a Directors Show where I tested out my show on local directors. First of all, Hattiloo allowed me to have the Directors Show there. Voices of the South gave me rehearsal space and others did as well, and not to mention all the theatre professionals who came to see the show to give me feedback. I have performed and taken classes at Tennessee Shakespeare and grown immeasurably because of it.
So, I am definitely better for this community. But I have also been self-empowered because as an actor and writer, someone who desires to take her writing and acting to the world, to the big and small screen, as it were, I knew that I needed to create something for myself and not wait on anyone to fulfill my artistic needs. At a certain point, I knew unquestionably that no one is going to come along and fill that hole in me that is my artistic longing. I knew I had to do it myself and certainly, my community/village pulled up the rear to support me and I am so grateful for that.