I am Margaret Baldwin. Ooh that’s loud! Got it? I am Margaret Baldwin and I am a playwright and I’m thrilled to be here today. I’m going to talk to you a little bit about what it means to write a play. So I’m going to tell you a story to do that.
The story is, it’s about June 2006, and Lisa Adler the Co-Artistic/Producing Director of Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, she calls me up and says, “So Margaret, what do you want to write next?” I spelt that wrong on purpose. [What do you want to wright?] Because plays are not written – they are wrought, the way ships are wrought and boats are wrought and iron is wrought. And you’re not a solo creator in the process. There are many, many people who have a hand in the making of your play. There are directors, producers, there are actors, designers, there are stage managers, and most importantly there’s you, the audience. Because a play is not complete until it’s given to an audience. I can’t hand you my script and say, “Here’s my play.” It doesn’t exist. The play exists somewhere in between us in a shared space and that’s part of what makes playwriting unique.
So, Lisa says, “What do you want to write next?” And this is a real gift as a playwright, to be given a choice to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve got something to write,” and people to support it. And I wanted to write about my family, my mother’s family from Selma, Alabama. My mom’s that cute blonde in front. And… I wanted to write in particular a story about my grandmother and a woman, an African-American woman named Matilda Martin, who worked for my grandmother as a housekeeper for over 25 years and who later became a nurse and nursed my grandmother through her death. And their relationship was very important to me as I grew up going to Selma on holidays and Christmas. I thought Santa Claus lived in Selma and this relationship was something that I thought: “If I can capture this, this will make me a real writer.”
There’s one story in particular that really stood out to me about their relationship and it goes like this: It is March, 1965 and it’s the day of the big march on Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Junior. And Matilda comes to work that day and my grandmother says, “Matilda, do you want to go downtown? Do you know what’s going on downtown today?”
And Matilda said, “Yes ma’am.”
And my grandmother said, “Well, do you want to go watch it?”
And she said “Yes.”
And so the two of them got in my grandmother’s Lincoln Continental the kind with the suicide doors, and my grandmother sat in the front seat and Matilda sat in the back seat because at that time those two women could not sit in the same seat together. And they drove down to Lauderdale street and parked the car and they watched the march go by. And this story said to me something about their relationship, something about the layers and the complexities of what it was like for those two women to exist during that time.
So, it’s about 30 years later and I think I am finally ready to tell that story. I get some actors together, I write about 20 pages, we have a reading at the Horizon, very informal, maybe seven people in the audience and it became clear that one voice was missing from that reading, and that I hadn’t really tapped into the voice of the Matilda character – who I started calling Geneva because it sounds the same almost, but is different enough that it’s not actual.
So I go back to Selma and I talk to Matilda who is still living and is still alive and well in Selma. We sit down in my aunt and uncle’s living room, on the sofa, and I tell her the story the same way I just told you. And I said, “So I want to hear your side of the story. I’d like to hear what it was like for you.”
And she looks at me and she says, “Well… It didn’t happen.” And in that moment this play that I’d always wanted to write the story that had made me want to become a writer, the story that had said to me who my family was and that we were some of the “good” white people and who I was as a person growing up in a complicated South, the story… was a lie. It wasn’t a mean lie, it wasn’t a bad lie. I think maybe there could have been an ounce of truth in it, there were marches that went on every day for ten weeks, during that period of the marches in Selma. So it could have been maybe granny Ruth was taking her home one day and they stopped and watched a while. But somehow over the years that story had become fiction.
So I was depressed. And I was headed back to Atlanta with my husband and I told him this, and he said, “Well, maybe that’s your story, maybe that’s the play you need to write.” And that’s when my real work began. And so I started doing research, and I started to ask questions. One of the great things about a playwright is you can know absolutely nothing about a subject but then you have to write about it, so you have to learn, right?