From her seat in a Queens College theater last week, Rita Dove leaned forward, clasped her hands and smiled as she watched the lives of her grandparents —a story of a marriage, of love and dancing and heartbreak set amidst the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans left the South to seek work in the North —unfold last week in what is believed to be the first theatrical adaptation of Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, “Thomas and Beulah.”
“It really moved me — and it can be hard to move me,” Dove, who served as poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995 and now teaches at the University of Virginia, told those involved in Friday’s production at Queens College’s Little Theater in Flushing.
The college’s MFA program in creative writing and literary translation partnered with the Poetry Society of America to present “Thomas and Beulah,” for which Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. The show is part of “Poets in the Playhouse,” a series of performances sponsored by Queens College and PSA, the country’s oldest poetry organization.
Dove, who lives in Charlottesville, Va. and came to Queens College specifically for the production, said she was thrilled to see her poetry being presented in a new medium.
“It’s very exciting,” Dove said. “People have always told me that my poems seem like they could become theater, but it’s never been done.”
Tyler Rivenbark, who received his MFA in playwriting from Queens College in 2010 and now teaches at the school, adapted Dove’s book inspired by her maternal grandparents’ lives into the show, which included a recitation of the poems, singing and mandolin music — the latter by Barry Mitterhoff, who has performed on Broadway and is a member of the duo Hot Tuna. Queens College student Stephen Winburn, of Astoria, played Thomas, Dove’s grandfather who moved from Tennessee to Akron, Ohio in 1921 to work in the city’s growing rubber industry. Shaunette Wilson, a Queens College student from Jamaica, played Beulah, Dove’s grandmother —who was named Georgianna in real life and had moved to Akron, Ohio from Georgia as a young child. Queens College student David Clarke, also of Jamaica, played Lem, Thomas’ friend in the poems who was written into the show as its narrator.
“I went through it several times to figure out what I wanted to do,” said Rivenbark, known in the Queens literary world for co-founding the “Oh, Bernice!” reading series, which takes places every month in Sunnyside. “After reading it several times, I realized I wanted to focus in on their relationship.”
Dove also spoke of the relationship, and how it fared against the strong tides of some seven decades of tumultuous history.
“It’s the story of a marriage, and how they make it work through all sorts of adversaries —personal and the pressures of the world,” she said.
The production was minimalist when it came to props, using a backdrop of picture slides and silver and yellow umbrellas, in a nod to Dove’s own use of the colors in her book. Throughout the poems, the author often cites silver — or even more so, uses “translucent” as a color — to contextualize a world that cannot be explained in black and white, but rather is a more muddled, more varied experience on the continuum life.
“I didn’t want something literal,” Nicco Annan, the show’s director, said of his desire to use little in the way of props. “Working with poetry, you have to leave yourself open to interpretation.”
The students in the play said while they were nervous to be in the first theatrical performance of a piece of literature that is taught in classes worldwide, they were also thrilled.
“This poetry is so deep and colorful that it was a little intimidating because I wanted to do it justice,” said Clarke, a senior majoring in biology who hopes to attend medical school.
Echoing Clarke’s sentiment, Wilson, a drama major and English minor, said she “felt a sense of history of what it was like to be a woman, a mother, a wife at that time.”
Winburn, who made his off-Broadway debut in “Hair,” told the audience that because Thomas does not speak very much in the poems, he focused on the character’s actions.
“He can’t put his feelings into words, and so he puts everything into movement,” Winburn said.
Also attending the performance were Darrel Alejando Holnes, programs director of the PSA, and Alice Quinn, PSA’s executive director and the poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 2007.
“I wanted to do ‘Thomas and Beulah’ because it’s the first collection of poetry I ever read,” Holnes said. “I had moved from New Orleans to Houston because of Katrina, and I became a journalism major at the University of Houston. Then I took a creative writing class and read ‘Thomas and Beulah’ and everything changed.”