No Ordinary Life
Dr. Samuel Hay’s David Richmond is remarkable because it neither attempts to document Richmond’s life in great detail nor does the former A&T student ever appear as a character in the play even though some of the action revolves around news of his birth. Rather than recounting the momentous events leading up to and following the dramatic sit-in staged by the four students in February 1960, the play explores a fictional conflict between two fortune-telling sisters who have divergent visions of Richmond’s future life.
Set in 1941, the year of Richmond’s birth, the play examines Black life in Richmond’s hometown of Greensboro, N.C. Its pre-civil rights movement setting captures traditional Black southern communities whose residents are steeped in religious mysticism and occult practices akin to Haitian voodoo and other West African-based spiritual rituals. The lead characters, sisters Ollie Mama and Mama Plookie, not only have the ability to predict the future, but the latter lays claim to community leadership because of her authority as a spiritual leader.
The conflicting visions the sisters have over predicting Richmond’s life help illuminate a deeper rivalry between them. The sisters argue over whom has rightful ownership of a temple left to Mama Plookie by their late mother. The embittered sister, Ollie Mama, who predicts tough times for Richmond, claims that her sister deceived their mother — often at Ollie Mama’s expense — and as a result won inheritance of the temple.
Mama Plookie, who wants only to emphasize the good that Richmond will achieve for the community, has been unwilling to confront her own past and the pain she has caused her sister as she runs the temple and goes about organizing local Black residents for a protest march. In the end, Ollie Mama’s plotting to wrest the temple away from her sister leads to a surprising conclusion at the moment when reconciliation becomes most possible.
Hay says he got the idea to write David Richmond after university officials expressed interest in commemorating the legacy of the Greensboro Four. The playwright, who has authored 20 plays, accepted the assignment and began researching Richmond’s life. What he found was that Richmond’s post-college experiences contrasted sharply with the lives of his lunch counter comrades. Shunned by both Blacks and Whites, the Greensboro native found himself a pariah in his hometown, unable to secure decent employment. He spent most of his life battling alcoholism, unemployment, and broken marriages, Hay says. Richmond died in 1990 of lung cancer.
“There was drama in this man’s life,” Hay says. “You get drama from struggle.”
Opting against a straight docu-drama approach, Hay wrote a play that drew heavily upon Black mysticism and classical Greek drama elements to craft an abstract work, casting Richmond more as a symbol than as a flesh-and-blood character. Hay says he decided on the unique format to spare Richmond’s friends and family reliving details of his frustrating life.
Having settled on Richmond as a symbolic hero, Hay admits the play needed more rewriting following its first premiere, during the early months of 1998. He believed it came across as too “abstract” and too “academic.” When Lucky announced intentions to enter David Richmond into national competition the following school year, Hay did not eagerly endorse the idea because he thought the play needed work.
So, during the summer, Lucky and Hay worked closely to re-craft the play. Hay says his usual procedure is to take a six-month break from a script after completing early drafts of a new play. Lucky provided fresh criticism and analysis throughout the summer as Hay rewrote the play.
“[Hay] did not hesitate to make David Richmond a better play,” Lucky says.
After premiering in Greensboro a second time, following a major rewrite, Richmond drew praise from local theater critics. Abe D. Jones Jr., writing in the Greensboro News & Record, described the play as “exciting viewing” and “stylishly presented.” Much of the cast won positive notices from critics, especially Briddgett Bess and Moriah Denson, the actresses playing Ollie Mama and Mama Plookie.
“[The early version] was like an old house to me,” Lucky says. “It needed some work [but] I could see the potential.”
— — Ronald Roach
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