Emily Mann 1952-
Mann is an award-winning playwright and director whose works often take a documentary approach to such social and political events as World War II, the Vietnam War, and the 1978 murder of two San Francisco politicians. In Still Life, Execution of Justice, and other plays, Mann creates what she calls a "theater of testimony" in which she provokes and challenges audiences to confront often painful and divisive subjects.
Mann was born in Boston on 12 April 1952. Her parents were both educators, her father a history professor and her mother a reading specialist. Mann's family moved to Chicago in 1966, when her father received a position at the University of Chicago. Mann subsequently attended Chicago Laboratory High School, an experimental school where a teacher engaged her interest in theater. She went on to Harvard University and Radcliffe College, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1974. Mann won a directing fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota. In 1976 she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing. The following year she directed a production of her first play, Annulla Allen: The Autobiography of a Survivor, at the Guthrie Theater. In 1983 Mann received a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to do research for her next play, Execution of Justice. This work was a co-winner of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Great American Play Contest in 1983. Mann has won numerous other awards and honors, and has directed productions of her own plays and those of others at theaters across the country, including the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the American Place Theatre in New York. She is currently the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.
Among Mann's best-known works are Still Life and Execution of Justice. In Still Life, which won five Off-Broadway (Obie) awards, Mann examines the Vietnam War's toll on the lives of a veteran, his wife, and his mistress. The veteran, who discovered a taste for killing during the war, struggles with rage, guilt, and pleasurable feelings regarding his past. His wife, whom he periodically abuses, would like to get on with raising their children. His mistress steps lightly over all problems without letting any of them truly touch her. Staged as a dialogue among the three characters seated at a table facing the audience, the play illustrates their failure to communicate and their inability to deal effectively with the past. Execution of Justice concerns the 1978 murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay city supervisor Harvey Milk by city employee Dan White. Set in the courtroom where White was convicted of two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to less than eight years in prison, the play reveals the uproar the "gay murder" sparked among San Francisco's gay community and more conservative citizens. In this work Mann quotes the official trial transcripts and news coverage along with the statements of various people whose lives were affected by the event. Execution of Justice received several awards, including the Bay Area Critics Award. Mann also wrote and directed Having Our Say—The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years, which was nominated for an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1995. This play is based on the memoirs of black centenarians Bessie and Sarah Delaney and recounts their lives and struggles before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement.
Mann's critics have focused on her use of interviews, transcripts, and other historical materials, judging her documentary style particularly effective and forceful. Michael Feingold, for example, likened Still Life to "a jagged and arresting chunk of dramatic shrapnel that is now lodged permanently in my brain." In his review of Execution of Justice, Richard Hummler noted that the play "succeeds to a remarkable degree in the theatrically tricky task of putting a complex actual event into dramatic focus." Mann's technique does have its detractors, however. Robert Brustein judged Still Life monotonous and little more than a "succession of monologues" in which "the characters rarely engage each other," making it "hard for them to engage us." Similarly, John Simon argued that Execution of Justice is "underwritten and overdirected, so that much that should be in clear focus remains fuzzy, and much that should be simply stated and directed is gussied and gimmicked up into shrillness and garishness." Despite such criticisms, many consider Mann's documentary technique a significant contribution to American theater.
Annulla Allen: The Autobiography of a Survivor 1977; revised as Annulla, An Autobiography, 1985
Still Life: A Documentary 1980
Execution of Justice 1984
Nights and Days [adaptor; from a play by Pierre Laville] 1984
Betsey Brown: A Rhythm and Blues Musical [adaptor with Baikida Carroll and Ntozake Shange; from a novel by Shange] 1989
Having Our Say [adaptor; from a memoir by Sarah Delaney and Elizabeth Delaney with Amy Hill Hearth] 1995
Greensboro: A Requiem 1995
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Interview with Mann (1987)
SOURCE: An interview with Emily Mann, in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 274-87.
[In the following conversation with Betsko and Koenig, Mann discusses her use of interviews and transcripts in the creation of Still Life, Execution of Justice, and Annulla Allen.]
[Betsko and Koenig]: You often utilize performance elements in your plays: recorded dialogue, repetitions, slides.
[Mann]: I'm fascinated with live performance aspects of theater. It enables you to add another layer of perception to what you are presenting and gives you alternative ways to tell your story. You can stylize without being linear, without the traditional rising and falling action, where you watch one protagonist. The play can then be seen from different angles simultaneously. I did use some performance elements in the writing of Execution of Justice [which premiered at the Eureka Theatre in 1982], and I like that aesthetic. Some people called Still Life [premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 1980] a performance piece. I don't know if I would or not. But there are certainly performance elements in it.
Simultaneity seems important to you as a playwright, and as a director.
Yes. Incredibly so. For example,...
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Michael Feingold (review date 25 February-3 March 1981)
SOURCE: "Home Fronts," in The Village Voice, 25 February-3 March 1981, pp. 75, 77.
[Still Life premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1980 and debuted Off-Broadway early the following year at the American Place Theatre. In the following highly favorable review of the latter production, Feingold praises the writing, acting, and staging of the piece.]
"As incredibly civilized as we are in this room," says the nice young man, "these things go on." The things he is talking about are murder, mutilation, child-killing, schizophrenic breakdowns, battlefield hysteria, and seeing his buddies with their heads blown off. In other words, he is talking about Vietnam. The young man goes on talking. He is such a nice young man—smiling, straight-forward, presentable, aware. We ought to like him, we think. Sure, he did time in jail on a drug rap after serving in Vietnam, but veterans don't have it easy, and drugs are universal. He has a wife and son, and another child on the way. Granted, he takes photographs that tend to feature people smeared with stage blood and stuck with prop weapons; say he's working out his Vietnam trauma, it can't be easy for him. He's still a nice guy. So why does he pound the table that way, and give his wife threatening looks? Why is he getting up menacingly...
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Execution Of Justice
Leslie Bennetts (review date 9 March 1986)
SOURCE: "When Reality Takes to the Stage," in The New York Times, 9 March 1986, Section 2, pp. 1, 4.
[Execution of Justice received its Broadway debut on 13 March 1986 at the Virginia Theatre. In the following piece, which appeared just prior to the premiere, Bennetts provides background on the genesis of the play, its staging, and its author.]
If someone had invented the plot, it might seem too incredible: a straight-arrow city official resigns from his post, then changes his mind and requests his job back—but the mayor has already decided to appoint someone else. In a rage, the official—a former policeman and fireman—shoots the mayor and another city official, a prominent homosexual activist.
There is no question he committed the murders, but when the case comes to trial the defense claims, among other assertions, that the accused had been binging on junk food with a high sugar content, which may have precipitated violent behavior—a theory soon immortalized as "the Twinkle defense." The jury declines to convict the assassin of first or second degree murder, passing only a verdict of voluntary manslaughter—which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.
The outraged community riots, with thousands of people storming City Hall and setting...
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Kolin, Philip C. and LaNelle, Daniel. "Emily Mann: A Classified Bibliography." Studies in American Drama 1945-Present 4 (1989): 223-66.
Includes an exhaustive listing of secondary materials on Mann and an essay surveying her important works.
Savran, David. "Emily Mann." In his In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, pp. 145-60. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
Interview with Mann in which she discusses her plays Annulla and Still Life, the influence of Bertolt Brecht on her work, and other topics.
Gussow, Mel. 'Testimony of a Survivor." The New York Times (2 November 1988): C 23.
Mixed review of Annulla Allen that contends that as "testimony from an atypical survivor of the Holocaust," the play "has a viability, but as a monodrama it needs additional structuring and clarification."
Hersh, Amy. "A Survivor's Voice." American Theatre 5, No. 8 (November 1988): 8-9.
Discussion of Annulla Allen that includes comments by Mann and by Linda Hunt, star of the 1988 New Theatre of Brooklyn production of the play.
Massa, Robert. "Unstill Life." The Village Voice 33, No. 45 (8 November 1988): 100.
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