Lynn Nottage’s ‘One More River to Cross’ finally surfaces with area productions

Listen
 Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company players (from left) Juliet Davida Klinman, Quinton J. Alexander and Charly Sarah Klinman rehearse for Lynn Nottage's

Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company players (from left) Juliet Davida Klinman, Quinton J. Alexander and Charly Sarah Klinman rehearse for Lynn Nottage's "One More River to Cross" at the Latvian Society. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Playwright Lynn Nottage is having a moment right now.

This year, the New York-based writer won her second Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Sweat.” Next week, at long last, she will get her long-overdue Broadway debut with the same play.

And this month in Philadelphia, a play she wrote 10 years ago continues its world premiere.

To write “One More River to Cross,” Nottage pored through thousands of oral histories of former African-American slaves, recorded in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project. She finished the script in 2007. and it was ignored for a decade.

The script was discovered in an online theater database by Bridget Reilly Beauchamp, artistic director of the Jenkintown-based Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company.

She approached James Jackson to direct it.

“She didn’t want to direct it herself because, as she put it, they are a bunch of white ladies from the suburbs,” said Jackson. “So she was looking for a person of color to direct.”

Jackson was impressed by the script — not just for its content, but how Nottage was able to build a single narrative arc from the histories of 30 individuals.

“The narrative arc is the entire story of slavery in America — from African capture to Emancipation,” said Jackson. “It creates an emotional arc. I’m surprised nobody picked this up before and said, ‘Wow, this has to be done.'”

After a short run at the Jenkintown community theater this month, “One More River To Cross” has moved to a small black box theater at the Latvian Society in Philadelphia.

The production is music-heavy. The actors are accompanied by an eight-member chorus singing traditional spirituals. Jackson designed the production to trace a connection between ancient Greek drama and African storytelling traditions.

“This is how we, as African-Americans, live our lives. We are, socially, storytellers,” said Jackson. “It’s important we tell stories as well as we can when we get the opportunity. Especially stories as important as this one.”

Nottage was not involved in this production. With a Broadway premiere happening simultaneously, it’s unclear if she will be able to see the debut production of the script that sat in her drawer for a decade.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.