In Peripeteia

Tucsonan Barbara Seyda writes her first play, a thing of power and beauty, and it changes her life

If you'd been told that the first play you'd ever written, Celia, a Slave, had won the prestigious Yale Drama contest, to which there had been 1500 submissions from around the world, and it included publication of the play, a $10,000 prize and a staged reading at the Lincoln Center to an audience of folks who were there not only to admire your work but also able to help the advancement of your play to a big-time production in New York, what would you be most excited about?

According to Barbara Seyda, for whom all this actually happened, just about the best part was being able to enter Lincoln Center through the backstage door.

It's really not quite as, well, odd, as it might seem. Let's back up.

The play Celia, a Slave, is authentically—and because of Seyda's meticulous research one could say it's hyper-authentically—based on the true story of an 18-year-old slave girl, Celia, owned by Robert Newsome in Calloway County, Missouri, in the first part of the 19th century. She had been hanged in 1855 at age 19 for killing her owner. He had repeatedly raped her and she had had several of his children and she finally killed him. The play is a series of monologues offered by 23 characters that were in some way connected with Celia's story, including relatives, the victim's family, some of the legal personnel involved and, of course, Celia.

Now about that Lincoln Center stage door thrill. Of the many fields of endeavor—journalism, writing and editing, fine art—in which Seyda has participated successfully, theater has been a long-standing practice. She has worked on load-ins and load-outs and, perhaps most happily, stitching sequins on gowns, ironing tuxedo pants—whatever she was asked to do—in the costume shops at Arizona Opera, Arizona Theatre Company, and assisting with wardrobe maintenance when touring companies come to town, like those brought in by Broadway in Tucson.

"Half of my life is books, writing and editing and the other half is theater," Seyda said when we spoke in a meeting room of the downtown public library. "I never studied theater. I learned from working behind the scenes."

She was fascinated by that world but never had a desire to be on stage. She loved the contemplative nature of sewing, something she had done since she was a child.

She had never thought about writing a play until she ran into John Grant, a professor in Africana Studies at the UA. It was at a small dinner party, and instead of small talk, Grant spoke for three hours, "telling an avalanche of stories about freed and enslaved women of color of the 19th century."

That night she had a dream about these women, which she considered a "sub-conscious affirmation" that she needed to look deeply into the stories of these women. She envisioned a scripted form. She called Grant the next day and asked for more information about the child, Celia.

Thus began years of "intense archival research," says Seyda, which meant "looking at court records and trial transcripts, reading letters and journals, genealogy records, probate court records" of Calloway County. Seyda had worked at the Smithsonian and so was familiar with archival research.

But she "thought a writer had to have a big desk, a lot of time and funding. I had none of that. I had a tiny wooden desk. I didn't even have a laptop then. I wrote it in longhand."

She sought out the resources available at Himmel Park Library.

"Those folks were so patient and helpful, especially through the Interlibrary loans program," in which libraries loan materials temporarily to those that don't have them. "I would ask for something I thought was important and they would get it. I really wrote most of the play there. I carried a flash drive back and forth. I kept a notebook by my bed. I couldn't sleep. There were all these voices—I felt like a conductor of an unruly orchestra."

As the information she gathered was beginning to need a shape, Seyda looked to Anna Deveare Smith's Fire in the Mirrors, a one-woman show dealing with the Crown Heights riot in 1991. "I really studied that play as a structural prototype. It was written at the intersection of journalism, social activism and theater," which is really where Seyda herself operates. She had originally conceived of Celia as a film script. But when she saw The Mountain Top at ATC, she realized that playwright Katori Hall had successfully utilized a very different kind of storytelling than that usually seen in the theater. Celia, she determined, belonged on the stage.

Still, she was reluctant to write this piece. "I didn't find the story. The story found me. I did not want to write this play. It was horribly painful. It deals with systemic racism, slave litigation and the execution of a juvenile. I had to research the history of the death penalty and the history of slavery. I was looking at pain and evil and trying to translate them into words. I couldn't sleep. I tried to give up on this play many times."

But finally Seyda surrendered. "I thought it was important. I feel strongly about foregrounding the stories and voices" of those systematically silenced. She says it's important for us to know "the legacy of slave women, interracial relationships and the legacy of trauma," which is not part of our education, but absolutely should be.

In Seyda's play "there are 23 characters suspended in a fragmented narrative." The characters don't interact, there's no dialogue and no acts. There's one musician.

After three years of research and writing, she submitted the play to numerous contests. It was rejected repeatedly. She almost didn't submit it to Yale, but she was attracted by the possibility of their publishing it if she won. She felt, even if were never produced, there would be a lasting text about the subject. She submitted it in 2014, three days before the deadline.

In the spring of 2015, when she learned she had won, Seyda wept. In November of that year, 2015, was the reading at Lincoln Center, where her director was Niegel Smith and there was a topnotch cast. From the solitude of writing, she says, she was "catapulted into the world of publishers and agents and producers." She's been approached by HBO and a senior editor at Oprah Winfrey's magazine. There is an excellent chance it will be optioned by a producer, one connected to Hamilton, this fall.

Seyda, who is working on two new scripts, will return to New York in November to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Yale contest. Celia, a Slave was the ninth chosen. Her judge was Nicholas Wright, former Associate Director of London's Royal Court. She will be introduced to all the winners and judges. Other judges have included the late Edward Albee, John Guare, Marsha Norman, and David Hare. She will also meet with folks interested in producing it.

Again, when she enters Lincoln Center, she will use the stage door.

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