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Stanford Report, October 1, 1997

Profile of Harry Elam: 10/1/97

Double billing: Director Harry Elam also
heads new freshman humanities program


As the prop manager filled several empty liquor bottles with Coca-Cola and dusted off a silver tea set, Harry Elam was thumbing through his director's notes.

"I've seen this play probably 75 times by now, and it was still great to watch last night," he told cast members assembled backstage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. "The energy and timing are getting better, but we've got to take five minutes off each act. We've got to really drive this show."

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With only two preview performances left before opening night of the West Coast premiere of Blues for an Alabama Sky, the actors were running on fumes and Power Bars. Directors with egos the size of proscenium arches have been known to hurl invectives at this stage of rehearsals, but Elam stuck with a characteristically low-key approach. By the time he finished his pep talk, complimenting one actor on an ad-libbed dance and urging another to pump up his rage and fury on stage, the cast was drawing a second wind from Elam's encouraging words.

"So let us prepare for an entertaining evening at the the-a-ter," he said, slipping into a John Cleese parody of British aristocracy and doffing an imaginary top hat.

When the lights went up an hour later on a New York City brownstone, where a photograph of cabaret stylist Josephine Baker hung on one wall of the cutaway apartment and telephone lines drooped overhead, the audience was transported to a summer night in 1930. As a Cotton Club singer, her gay costume-designer roommate and their friends drifted through the final days of the Harlem Renaissance, dripping saucy allusions to the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and poet Langston Hughes, it was clear that the cast was not only driving the show, but tuning up a Grand Prix performance.

"Harry appreciates the kind of bonding that happens in a play, and in every show he's done for us, he's created an underlying sense of community backstage that's a subtle reinforcement of the art on stage," says Robert Kelley, artistic director of TheatreWorks.

After seeing Elam's work at the Nitery in 1992, when he directed Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Kelley hired him to direct Cheryl L. West's Jar the Floor that same year and August Wilson's Two Trains Running in 1996. Elam recently was named to TheatreWorks' board of directors for the 1997-98 season.

"An important part of Harry's reputation is his scholarship and artistry with the plays of August Wilson," Kelley says. "But even more important, he has an underlying faith in people and their ability to be creative."

As an associate professor of drama who specializes in the works of playwrights of color, Elam makes time to direct as often as his schedule allows, but this past summer was a challenging exercise in creative time management. In addition to juggling weeks of late-night rehearsals with the administrative challenges of directing and launching the new Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program, Elam spent much of July and August trying to finish the final chapters of a manuscript that was due at the publisher by October. Still, those who've known him longest suggest that he may find genuine satisfaction in being intellectual ringmaster for three-ring balancing acts.

"Harry was beyond being dedicated to getting everything just right," says Joy Zinoman, founder and artistic director of Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Elam acted in the 1986 production of Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The first staging of the play after its Broadway run, the show was extended for an unprecedented three months, setting new box-office records.

"He was the youngest member of the cast and played a hesitant young man with a stutter," Zinoman adds. "I remember him rehearsing really hard because of the stutter and the complex accent, and it wasn't until later on that I found out he was an academic and had a whole other life."

Elam was teaching drama at the University of Maryland when he auditioned for the Studio Theatre production, and it was that role that helped him to decide he'd rather be sitting in the director's chair than standing in the spotlight.

"So many actors find something new in their characters every night, but I found it repetitive and time-consuming, rather than invigorating," he has said about his acting experience. "I wanted to be able to see a production as a whole ­ to serve the desires of the playwright, inspire other artists and also show the play in a new light by helping to find its voice and spine."

That perspective should serve Elam well as director of IHUM, the year-long required freshman course that was approved by the Faculty Senate last spring as a replacement for Cultures, Ideas and Values. The program will be phased in over the next three years, and Elam is teaching one of two autumn-quarter pilot courses, "Why Read It?" with Keith Baker, professor of history, and Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian.

"I've team-taught before, but never like this," Elam says. "My sense is that it offers new challenges in teaching, but also offers new possibilities in learning. I know that over the summer I had to learn a lot about the texts from my two colleagues."

After comparing their favorite texts, the "Why Read It?" team decided to teach from Plato's Symposium, Shakespeare's King Lear, Montesquieu's Persian Letters and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Each professor lectures on each text from his own disciplinary perspectives, and they also attend one another's lectures. At the end of the quarter all three will gather on stage in Memorial Auditorium's Little Theater, where the class meets, to sum up and field questions.

"One of the positive things that's come out of the science core has been having three professors debating among themselves about issues like light," Elam says. "It's been great for students because it's opened up the idea that, yeah, there are different ways of seeing things."

As an undergraduate at Harvard University in the mid-1970s, Elam says, he had a number of small discussion sections where he read the work of social theorists.

"What those courses did for me is exactly what I think our course should do ­ encourage close reading, analyzing and discussion. For me, it shaped my whole thinking in terms of what I wanted to do academically."

Elam had entered Harvard with his sights set on law school, largely because his father, for whom he is named, had been the first black chief justice of Boston Municipal Court. But as a result of his work in small seminar sections, Elam decided to major in drama.

"In college he was someone who was very visible in theater, in the Black Students Association and as a singer with the Kuumba Singers, the Harvard-Radcliffe black students' vocal ensemble," says National Public Radio's Cheryl Devall, who was a reporter for the Crimson and a couple of years behind Elam at Harvard. "I was so thrilled to see him fulfilling his desire for a career in the theater instead of going to law school, as so many of his classmates did."

Elam went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became the first African American student to earn a doctorate in dramatic literature. He likes to joke that the title of his dissertation was so long ­ Theater for Social Change: The Artistic and Social Vision of Revolutionary Theater in America, 1920-1970 ­ that the only people who read it were his committee of advisers.

Revised and published this summer by the University of Michigan Press as Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka, Elam's investigation of the use of theater to effect social change is compelling reading. He looks at the work of El Teatro Campesino and the Black Revolutionary Theater in the 1960s and '70s, comparing the drama that emerged from the streets of Detroit and the vineyards of Delano, Calif., and showing how spirituality and resistance have been interconnected in black and Chicano performance.

"Definitions of the American dramatic 'canon' have been broadened to embrace the works of underrepresented peoples," Elam writes. And he argues that cross-cultural inquiries are essential: "Only in this way can we move beyond the potentially polarizing divisions of race and ethnicity."

Since arriving at Stanford in 1990, Elam repeatedly has been recognized for the ways in which he has engaged students of all backgrounds. He won an ASSU teaching award in 1992, a Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1993 and a Bing teaching award in 1994. In addition to directing the Committee on Black Performing Arts, he has served on committees examining the future of Asian American studies and CIV, and also helped to organize a series of faculty teach-ins on racism.

Five years ago, Elam launched a collaboration, which quickly came to be known as "Harry's project," between Stanford students, faculty and staff and residents of East Palo Alto to help eradicate that community's media image as the murder capital of the nation. He sent letters to 5,000 East Palo Alto households, formed a task force and helped students conduct more than 80 hours of interviews with local residents. Three years in the making, "Dreams of a City: The East Palo Alto Project," resulted in two specially commissioned plays and a documentary video that was incorporated in the elementary school curriculum of the Ravenswood District.

"I was fascinated with the project from the very beginning, and wanted to tell the story of East Palo Alto through the history of the Ohlone Indians," says Charles "OyamO" Gordon, an associate professor of drama at the University of Michigan who is the author of more than 30 plays and who wrote the commissioned piece Dancing on the Brink after working in residence at Stanford for a quarter.

"My script called for a lot of characters, special dancing and drumming, and I wasn't certain how they would manage it," OyamO says. "But Harry, to his credit, didn't tell me not to do it the way I wanted to.

"He's a man with a lot of integrity and, at the same time, a healthy dose of humility. I felt I could trust him, and sure enough, it turned out that I placed my trust correctly."

Elam's newest project is his next book. Tentatively titled (W)righting History: The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, it will focus on the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose portrayals of black urban history in the United States have had a profound impact on Elam.

"It started out as a book about contemporary African American theater in general, but soon came to be focused specifically on the work of August Wilson," he says. "I'm trying to show how the past impacts on the present in African American drama, and how Wilson's work relates to contemporary and post-modern thoughts about history."

Elam has met Wilson only briefly ­ at post-production parties when two of his plays were performed at Washington's Studio Theatre.

"He was very unassuming both times, just sitting in a corner, smoking a cigarette," Elam recalls. "I've never had the right opportunity to sit down with him and have a long, academic talk, but I'd really like to."

Another bright light in Elam's firmament of favorite people is his younger brother, Keith.

A graduate of Morehouse College and former case worker for foster children, Keith Elam is better known to the hip-hop generation as Guru (for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), a New York-based rapper who fronts the chart-busting group Gangstarr and who has fused the sounds of jazz and hip-hop in the music of Jazzmatazz. "When he played campus two years ago, he gave me a whole different level of credibility," Elam says, "Suddenly I'd made it.

"But the thing I really admire about Keith is that when he graduated from college with a business degree and my family and I kept telling him, 'You gotta get a job,' he knew that what he really wanted to do was rap," Elam adds. "I didn't think that was practical, but he pursued his dream and made it a reality."

Elam and his brother grew up with two other siblings in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood of Boston. Their father was a prominent jurist and their mother oversaw libraries for the city's public schools. There are apocryphal stories of boxes of old clothes in the attic that inspired dressing up, and the Elam children always had to perform in Thanksgiving celebrations at their grandparents' home.

In sixth grade Elam had his first crush and wrote his first play ­ dedicated to the young lady who was the object of his affections. By the time he enrolled at Noble and Greenough School, a private academy for boys, he appeared headed for a life on stage. In addition to serving as class president and captain of the basketball team, Elam was co-founder of The Family, a troupe that performed African American plays and raised scholarship money for black students.

Those early efforts to support other classmates have taken expansive shape in Elam's role as a mentor for many African American students at Stanford. In a recent award citation, former chair of the drama department Michael Ramsaur described Elam's significant "visibility, innovative programming and strong academic presence in the lives of black students."

Senior Sterling Brown was a freshman living in Ujamaa house when Elam came to the dorm to encourage students to try out for a production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Brown had acted throughout high school, but he was hesitant to commit to hours of rehearsals in college.

"I didn't feel as if my mom had sent me to Stanford to be a drama major," he says. "But I decided to try out for the play and I ended up with the role of Loomis."

As a result of that show, Brown auditioned for and won the understudy role in TheatreWorks' 1996 production of Two Trains Running, then landed another plum role in its recent Blues for an Alabama Sky. In the process, he also decided to major in drama and now is headed for graduate school and an MFA degree.

When he's asked about Elam's approach to directing, Brown says it's understated but effective.

"Sometimes, I'll ask him, 'Why don't you show me what you're talking about?' but he's really shy about getting up on stage. More important, though, he never gives actors line readings because if a line is forced, it's not going to achieve the spontaneity he wants.

"Instead, he knows how to deal with each of us at our own level. And he has given me an enormous amount of confidence in what I'm capable of doing." SR