Two writers - one black, one white - are paired to write essays about growing up in segregated Florida. The project evolves into a lecture tour, a friendship and now a play on race relations past and present.
ST. PETERSBURG - As a black writer, Bill Maxwell readily acknowledges that he considers himself, in a term used by playwright August Wilson, a "race man."
"It's who I am," Maxwell says. "Race is my concern."
Maxwell is an influential voice on matters of race as a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. But rarely has his work on the subject had quite the impact of a project called Parallel Lives.
It started as a matched set of essays about coming of age in the segregated Florida of the 1950s, written by Maxwell and novelist Beverly Coyle, who is white. Maxwell wrote about growing up in Crescent City, living with his grandparents while his migrant farmer parents followed the crops. Coyle, a sixth-generation Floridian, recollected her youth as the daughter of a Methodist clergyman in Fernandina Beach and other towns.
Published four years ago in Forum, the magazine of the Florida Humanities Council, the memoirs were turned into a lecture program that Coyle and Maxwell toured around the state and beyond, even appearing at the United Nations in New York. Their honest, sometimes painful dialogue on race struck a chord with audiences, which were racially mixed.
"People talked about stuff that they hadn't talked about for years," Maxwell says. "It was always a good space for people to talk about race, every time. There was never a failure."
Coyle, who has published three novels, all set in Florida, is professor emeritus in literature at Vassar College and lives in New York City. She agrees that putting black and white points of view side by side has been remarkably effective.
"People love those stories. We don't want to be married to them forever. But there's something authentic about those stories that nobody wanted to see disappear," she says.
Now Parallel Lives is headed for the stage. Coyle and Maxwell have collaborated on a play based on their experience with the project that premieres at American Stage this weekend. The play includes material from their essays about life under Jim Crow, but it also brings the two up to the present.
"There are two parallel things developing in the piece: the stories being told about their youth and the story of their relationship, the friendship between a black man and a white woman developing," director Constance McCord says. "It begins with a phone call and ends with them having a drink in a bar after one of their programs. They go from not knowing each other at all to considering themselves friends enough to say things to each other that they never said to anyone before."
The relationship was a bit rocky in the beginning. Maxwell recalls getting a phone call from Coyle, whom he had never met, after they were hired to write the essays. She wanted to know how he was going to handle his.
"Here's a white lady calling about race," he says. "The last thing I needed that day was some white chick calling me about race. That was my attitude, and she picked up on it."
Coyle likewise recalls their early encounters as "not good. I began to see there was a lot at stake here. I found myself thinking, who is Bill Maxwell? Is this the conservative black man? Of course, he was having to do the same. Who has time, at our age, to get involved with somebody you don't like and respect?" Both are in their mid 50s.
Their essays are strikingly different. Maxwell's is a fast-paced narrative, contrasting the innocence of his bucolic childhood in rural northeast Florida with the brutality of racism that he first experienced in 1959 when a Putnam County deputy roughed him up because he had not said "ma'am" to a white woman.
Coyle's essay is more elusive, the story of someone whose experience was on the other side of segregation. Coincidentally, it also focused on an incident in 1959, when her father refused to let her go to the annual Lions Club blackface minstrel show in Fernandina Beach.
Coyle sent Maxwell a draft of her essay. "It was a bit intimidating to read hers," he says. "It had more texture and novelistic detail. Mine was more journalistic.
"Hers was hard to write. Mine was easier to write. Mine was just a hell of a nasty story. Her story was a different kind of story. She had to really find it. I didn't have to find mine. In fact, I had to leave half my stuff out. It was just too bad."
Novelist and columnist were basically thrown together without knowing each other to do the Parallel Lives readings. At first, Maxwell was wary of Coyle, who would come down from New York for the tours that took them all over Florida.
"I wouldn't drink with her," he says. "I would eat with her if I was forced to. It probably took about six trips before I actually let her drive the rental car. No, we weren't immediate friends. But I liked her immediately."
Eventually, they became friends and began to change their presentation. Instead of simply reading the essays from lecterns, they became more spontaneous. A question-and-comment session at the end often dwelled on their lives today and the persistence of racism; sometimes they would argue with each other. The liveliness of these sessions got them thinking about a play.
"The magazine essays end when they're teenagers," McCord says. "These are lovely stories, worth hearing and important history, but it's also important to understand that there is still an enormous amount of discrimination in this country now. The task was to figure out a way to incorporate the old material with some new experience between the two of them."
Maxwell sees the main contribution of the play as getting the characters to intersect. Going on the road with them is the way that happens onstage.
"You see them performing the program, but then you come out of that and you see them in the hotel lobby, you see them in a restaurant, you see them drinking merlot in a bar, you see the aftermath of a fight in the rental car," he says. "It was tough sometimes. The play shows it, too. They're telling a story about the past. At the same time, they're discovering for themselves what race is to them now. That becomes a real drama, because they're on a path of discovery."
The columnist, who studied Restoration comedy in graduate school at the University of Chicago, has an abiding belief in the power of theater. "I'm glad to be doing this because I can tell more truth about race in this piece of fiction than I can in this newspaper," he says.
Coyle says that self-honesty has been one of the biggest challenges she and Maxwell faced in writing about themselves. "We don't want to suddenly create characters just for the sake of drama and not be true to what happened," she says.
For example, depicting racism through the lens of a sophisticated novelist requires subtlety that may not immediately seem dramatic.
"There's a continuum of white defensiveness, from jerk to blind to downright racist," she says. "How can the Beverly character have some of that and still be Beverly Coyle? Beverly's PC (politically correct); she's been at Vassar, she knows what to say, she doesn't step into as much sh- as a lot of white people do, but I do step into it. So how can we find what I step into that is believable and not borrowed from some other personality? That's been hard."
New York actors Robert Colston and Deborah Mayo star in the play. Maxwell says that he is enjoying seeing himself portrayed onstage.
"Robert's a Texan. He was the ideal type that I was looking for to play me. I didn't want some guy born in Brooklyn to do it. He's shorter than me, heavier. He's as dark as I am. I like what he's done. I've sat through rehearsal and actually cried at a couple of places," Maxwell says.
Parallel Lives is being treated as a work in progress. "The idea is to move it and develop it more after this," Coyle says.
The producer is Ray Sawyer, a Cleveland lawyer who backed a pair of recent Broadway hits, Urinetown and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Two-time Tony Award winner Judith Ivey is interested in the project, having performed the lecture presentation with Keith David, who was in Barbershop and other movies, in New York. Representatives of regional theaters in the Northeast and off-Broadway companies are expected to attend performances in St. Petersburg with a view toward future productions.
Maxwell tends to be pessimistic about race relations. He hopes Parallel Lives can make a difference.
"I want Parallel Lives to be a scary portrayal of race in America," he says. "I want to make people truly stop for a change and take it seriously and think about it. To get chills. I don't think it's getting better fast enough. I don't think it's getting better deep enough. I think superficial things are happening, but the real stuff isn't happening."
PREVIEW: Parallel Lives by Beverly Coyle and Bill Maxwell opens Friday and runs through June 15 at American Stage in St. Petersburg. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (no matinee this Saturday). Discussion of the play follows performances Sunday, May 29 and 30, June 5, 8, 12 and 13. Tickets: $20-$28. (727) 823-7529.