by Terry Stephan
Early in the play The Gift Horse, the straight-talking, cello-playing character Jordan turns to the audience and says, “I hate practicing! I was made for an audience, and without one it just seemed pointless. I mean the art happens here, right here in between you and me is where the art happens. It’s not music without you. … When you join the mix, that’s where I live. … That’s where it all happens.”
Much the same is true of the award-winning play’s author, Lydia R. Gartin Diamond (C92), whose work has been challenging, entertaining and moving audiences for more than 15 years. Diamond’s career is sparkling right now. Last year, she and her husband, John Baylor Diamond (G98), and their 2-year-old son, Baylor, moved to Boston when John accepted a faculty position in the education department at Harvard University and she was named a playwriting fellow at the Huntington Theatre. This spring two of her plays were running simultaneously at noted Chicago theaters, an accomplishment the Chicago Tribune called “a highly unusual and impressive feat.”
In May her play based on Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was performed at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices festival. She will see her critically acclaimed adaptation of novelist Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and New York’s New Victory Theater this fall. It is also scheduled to open at the Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse in Washington, D.C., and PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina next year. “I am so privileged,” Diamond says of her current successes. “I am having such a glorious ride.”
Professor Charles Smith, who now heads the professional playwriting program at Ohio University, taught the first playwriting class Diamond took at Northwestern. He remembers a very shy student “who was sort of searching it out. I’m not sure she wanted to be a writer at that time,” he says. But halfway through the course, Smith says, Diamond began to stand out. “She distinguished herself from the other students. She was one of the few who didn’t try and imitate other writers, which is something you see a lot.”
Smith says many young writers tend to get diverted or distracted from their original ideas as they work through the craft of writing a play. “Over time you often see the play morph into something else,” he says. “But Lydia had stories to tell that had deep roots into her soul. She was unwavering in her relationship to her stories, which to me is the sign of an artist.”
The unique voice and view of relationships that characterize Diamond’s work grew out of her own personal journey. She was born in Detroit, and her parents divorced when she was 3. Her mother was a college professor whose teaching career and continuing education took them to Carbondale, Ill., Itta Bena, Miss., Amherst, Mass., Sparta, Ill., and Waco, Texas.
An only child, Diamond confesses with a laugh to being “a totally weird kid. I grew up around adults, so I did better with adults than I did with children.
“But I also enjoyed doing kid things,” she says, “like climbing trees, horseback riding, swimming, Girl Scouts.”
Her mother taught piano, flute and music appreciation, and she once bartered flute lessons in exchange for horseback riding lessons for her daughter.
“She was very creative, and I stayed active and engaged,” Diamond recalls.
The two shared a passion for books, with each taking turns reading chapters aloud. “We read Little Women, Little House on the Prairie,” she says. “I remember I was probably 11 when we read Roots together, and it was so traumatic. We would stay up till midnight because we would say, ‘OK, we’ll read another chapter. I know it’ll get better.’ So we would read until very late.”
A straight-A student who studied theater and debated in high school in Waco, Diamond was drawn to Northwestern by the reputation of the theater department. “It was the closest thing I could get to a conservatory education and a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “Actually it was the only school I applied to. I just didn’t quite get that you’re supposed to apply to several. I thought you picked the school you wanted!”
“During her undergraduate study, Lydia took classes from me and acted in several plays that I directed,” recalls Paul Edwards (C72, GC73), associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in performance studies. “What always marked Lydia as exceptional was her critical sense. You saw it in the way she sized up the people she knew, the books she read, the plays she saw, as well as in the way she sized up the institutions she had to deal with. I think we all had a sense that Lydia was heading for a truly distinguished career.”
Diamond at first focused on acting. “I really didn’t entertain the idea of being a writer,” she says. “You’re sort of presented with this idea of the playwright as this dead person who wrote the play. So even through most of my undergraduate career I didn’t really think of the act of writing the play. I took for granted that the play existed.”
That changed in Smith’s playwriting class her junior year. “I fell in love with playwriting. And I was good at it,” she says. “I don’t know if my inclination was so great or whether my efforts were rewarded in a way that it was easy for me to develop the skill. I was always more comfortable in the playwriting arena than performing.”
She realized at that point that she could no longer try and balance the two disciplines. “What I found was that I would get a really great role in a play and struggle because I had been writing and not really working on my actor tools,” she recalls. “And at a certain point I realized that if I was going to be an actor I had to be devoted to being an actor. And to be a better playwright I had to be devoted to being a playwright. And I decided for at least this stage of my life I needed to focus. So for the rest of my undergraduate career I let the acting go. And that was a relief.”
Diamond stayed in Chicago after graduation, producing her own plays and acting in others. She founded the improbably named Another Small Black Theater Company With Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerve Productions, waited tables and worked with a variety of theater companies. In the late 1990s she became a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, where she partnered with professional playwrights. “When I was around them I understood that there’s a thing you do as a playwright, the way you go about your business, the way you approach your work,” she says. “That’s when I came into my maturity as a playwright.”
Russ Tutterow (GC69), who worked with Diamond at Chicago Dramatists and later directed her play Voyeurs de Venus, says that her unique “voice” is what makes her work stand apart. “It’s how she writes her dialogue,” he says. “If I just listen to the dialogue of the lead character, I know it’s Lydia’s play. It is very distinctive, very aggressive, self-examining and very funny. Her work is very theatrical and intellectually rigorous. She mixes up realities, changing time and space within the span of a single sentence.”
Tutterow and others who have worked with Diamond are quick to point out how generous a person she is to work with. “She is open to investigation,” says Ed Sobel (GC98), the literary manager at the Steppenwolf Theatre. “She thrives on passionate exchange. Unlike many writers, Lydia genuinely likes, or gives the appearance of liking, talking at length about a play’s origin, the choices and decisions she’s made and what she is after in the piece. Decisions in the development process were based not on assumptions or ego but on what would make the best possible play.”
“I think that’s a hangover from my acting days,” says Diamond. “My favorite part of the process is where I work with people. I never cease to be amazed at the talents of other people and how they make your own work grow. I like opening a new play and being in a room with actors and working with actors and directors, the rewriting and seeing it for the first time with the director and still being in process during previews. I love all of that.”
Diamond credits her Northwestern experiences with helping her see the benefits of a collegial work environment. “There is a theater department approach to work that is slightly more collaborative than I have experienced in the world,” she says, “a certain equality that various theater artists share, a bit less hierarchical than many of my experiences in professional theater. My aesthetic is probably influenced by Northwestern more than I have comfortably known how to acknowledge.”
Diamond confronts head-on issues of race and class in her works. Voyeurs de Venus is about a contemporary black writer tackling the task of writing about a 19th-century woman from Africa who was exploited in England as a kind of freak show attraction. Stick Fly, which premiered at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre last March, portrays the interactions of a well-to-do black family on Martha’s Vineyard (see “Distinctive Dialogue”). Her first play, Solitaire, explored an interracial relationship.
“I think because the foundation of our country was built on an institution that was so profoundly dehumanizing, that of slavery, we sort of live in this collective lie about how we deal with and acknowledge the extent to which racism has formed our country politically, economically and institutionally,” she says. “I think we’re messed up around race. I don’t think we have the tools for talking about it, and I think that currently where we are politically, it’s even more taboo to acknowledge the things that are wrong.
“I like to think that we’re all working really hard, and because of that it makes it an even more sensitive issue. I think white institutions and white people can feel exhausted when they feel they’re doing the right things and are continually being critiqued. And people of color continue to feel exhausted when you feel like the things you’re acknowledging and saying are not being heard.
“But for the most part, I tell the story, and the politics come out because that’s who I am. I think we have stories that are important to tell, and the honesty in those stories appeals to people,” she says.
And she sees her plays as more expansive. “My works are also about love and relationships, father-daughter and mother-daughter relationships, and finding love, and sexuality,” she says. “It’s all very important, and it’s all very related.
“First of all, I’m never trying to do anything but write a good play that’s entertaining. The characters and stories are informed by a very politicized lens through which I see the world. And it’s informed by my experiences as an African American woman, as a daughter of a single mother, as a person with a diverse range of friends who experienced similar but unique kinds of marginalization, and my striving to understand that and challenge us all to continue to strive to understand that.”
Alan Shefsky, a program assistant in the performance studies department, first met Diamond when she was a student working the front desk for that department, and he has remained a good friend. “I think of her writing over the years as moving from the personal and interpersonal to the more social and political,” he says. “This isn’t to say that she somehow moved beyond her earlier concerns, but rather that she incorporated these, enriching and deepening her work.”
Ilana Brownstein, the literary manager of the Huntington Theatre, believes these factors give Diamond a unique style. “She sounds like no one else out there,” Brownstein says. “I am particularly moved by her active participation in the politics of daily life. Her characters struggle against stereotypes and assumptions because Lydia herself fights those battles. Her theatrical voice is inseparable from her identity as a young, outspoken woman of color, but her work also transcends racial politics, and her stories become about much more than the repercussions of historical injustice. In this way her plays are incredibly powerful and speak to a wide audience in which different people walk away with different experiences.
“We’re lucky to have her. Lydia had built a successful theatrical career in Chicago, and let’s be honest, a successful theatrical career is hard to come by. She left everything that was familiar, moved halfway across the country to a city with a theater scene not nearly as vital as that of Chicago, and had no community of fellow writers to lean on.”
Diamond sees the relocation to Boston in a somewhat different light. “The move was hard but an important experience. Seriously, my world in Chicago had gotten quite comfortable, and so I had stagnated into a kind of existence that doesn’t necessarily promote artistic growth. This move has challenged me, and painful as it has been to be away from my friends, family and colleagues, I have learned a lot about being alone and have had time to focus on trying to be a decent mother and wife.”
The upcoming openings of The Bluest Eye in several cities around the country represent a new phase of Diamond’s career. She’ll have no input into how the play will look and feel. The obvious advantage is that many more people in many more places will be exposed to Diamond’s work. But she approaches this with a bit of trepidation.
“This is what you want to have happen in your career, but it’s a new and interesting and scary proposition,” she says of the widespread production of The Bluest Eye. “They’ll do their own productions, use their own actors, their own design values and not mine. And I will get to be there on opening night, and hopefully they’ll take me to a nice dinner and treat me well. But it’s out of my hands. It challenges every bit of the control freak in me.”
Edwards sees an influential future for his former student. “Our world will always need remaking,” he says, “and theater is there to help with the job — by generating a living community, by providing a funhouse mirror, by being our guilty conscience, by sounding a voice that tells us what we are and what we can be. Lydia was interested in that kind of theater.
“Unlike a lot of her classmates, she was never interested in the fast track to Broadway or Hollywood success. She wanted to make art that matters to people, that changes things. And now she’s doing it, and people are paying attention. She deserves her success because I know she’ll use it well.”
Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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