Marcus Gardley is a nationally renowned playwright whose works have been shown on stages across the country and internationally. Yet despite his obvious talents, it comes as a surprise when he admits to having written his first play as a child before he’d even seen one. He credits his early awareness of theater to a childhood surrounded by books.
“My parents are avid readers so we grew up around a lot of literature, me and my siblings,” Gardley said. “I read plays of course, so I wrote based on plays that I read. I always had a fascination and deep love for literature.”
Despite his penchant for the written word, Gardley’s initial career plan was to be an anesthesiologist and he began his undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University as a pre-med major. He quickly realized that path wasn’t for him.
“I think I was pursuing the sciences because I thought it would be a prestigious career, but it wasn’t fun. I decided that I was just going to write because it made me feel good, and I never turned back. I’ve been writing plays since.”
Gardley graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from Yale School of Drama.
Never looking back has worked out well for Gardley, who has gone on to write several nationally acclaimed plays and musicals and even staged works in London in his short time — relatively speaking — on the theater circuit.
His plays tend to touch on either little-known historical events like the burning of 200 southern black churches in the 1990s that inspired Every Tongue Confess or community-centered crises. The Box: A Black Comedy is a satire about black men and prisons.
Gardley sees his work as a form of activism and cites other activist-playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Brown alum and Gardley’s mentor Lynn Nottage as inspirations.
“By its very nature theater allows for a more political form of expression. You can have so many characters on stage at once with so many different views, that you really do see a spectrum of ideas. The way the audience has to participate whether they want to or not, simply by being there, makes it a more communal and therefore political and activist form of art.”
Gardley attributes his activist leanings, in part, to the influence of Oakland, Calif., his hometown.
“The Black Panthers originated there and it’s a very progressive city. Growing up there. activism was just a part of my upbringing,” Gardley said.
Gardley’s most recent work was also influenced by his background. The House That Will Not Stand is about a group of African American women in 1836 New Orleans who were in common law marriages with wealthy Frenchmen. Many of the women ended up with their husbands’ fortunes, giving them unprecedented political and economic power. Some even consider them to be the forerunners of the American civil rights movement.
“For me, the play is really an homage to my mother and grandmothers. My mother’s side of the family is from New Orleans and I really wanted to talk about the strength of these women and how that was passed down to me through my mother, grandmothers, and aunts. It was the notion of ancestry and my own family that really inspired me to continue with the project.”
The play has been staged at both Berkeley and Yale and will be staged in London later this year.
Over the years, Gardley has also found a passion for writing musicals. He’s currently working on an adaptation of the Greek myth of Persephone that takes place during the Harlem renaissance of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It features many well-known icons of the time, including Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, each playing the role of a Greek character in the well-known myth. The story follows a young girl from the South who goes to Harlem to find her father and ends up finding herself in the heavily African American metropolis.
“It’s a part of African American history that I really wanted to expose to the world,” Gardley said.
Gardley hopes to do a presentation of the musical in New York later this year.
Despite a demanding writing and production schedule, Gardley, who splits his time between Providence and New York, makes teaching a priority. He was an adjunct faculty member at Brown for several years before accepting a tenure-track position as assistant professor of theatre arts and performance studies, which he begins this fall. He was previously on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and also taught at the University of San Francisco and Columbia. At Brown, he’ll continue to teach courses in adaptation, playwriting, screenwriting, and musical libretto.
His approach to teaching writing is to let the student lead the process.
“The act of writing is very personal, so I try to create an environment where we ask questions of the writer, instead of giving prescriptive notes. I don’t think you can teach someone to be a great writer, but you can teach someone how to craft what they’re doing and improve the talent that they have.”