New of Note

Alexis Greene’s New Biography EMILY MANN: REBEL ARTIST OF THE AMERICAN THEATER

Applause Books, November 2021.

Pages: 408

Cover photo: Merri Cyr

A woman of the Theater takes on the patriachs and carves out her place.

By Kate McLeod and Martine Sainvil

Playwright, Stage Director, Producer, Artist are just a few titles that Tony®, Drama Desk, and Obie Award-winning Emily Mann has earned over her long career. The creator of Annulla Allen: The Autobiography of a Survivor, Still Life and Execution of Justice among others, she is recognized as a theater maker who views the craft as a source of understanding, enlightenment and healing. Emily Mann is a pioneer for women in the theater.

Left to right: Emily Mann, Winnie Mandela, and Sara Blecher in South Africa, 1987. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EMILY MANN

Alexis Greene’s meticulous and admirable new biography Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater is a careful examination of where an artist comes from and makes the case that nature and nurture in the face of triumph and tragedy must entwine to create greatness.

Rebel Artist of the American Theater follows how the American dream manifests over generations in Mann’s family who face the headwinds of sexism and antisemitism. Greene’s deep dive begins with Mann’s ancestors who were Jewish immigrants from Europe fleeing to the United States. The thread then picks up with Mann’s parents – her mother a traditional homemaker and her father a university history professor. He is among a group of historians who marched as part of the third Selma to Montgomery protest in 1965.

Emily Mann with Joe Morton in rehearsal for Oedipus the King at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1981
BAM HAMM ARCHIVES Photo: Ken Howard

Mann grew up in the sheltered and homogeneous town of Northampton, Massachusetts, and then moved to vibrant and dynamic Chicago. Greene uses the family’s moves as an illustration of Mann’s development from child to teenager with her growing understanding of the world including the moment when Mann sees “White” and “Colored” signs on bathrooms during a family trip. Mann’s confusion and indignation are the early sparks of the responsibilities she will bear to stand up for the oppressed.

With the intense public engagement currently surrounding social justice movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Greene deftly highlights Mann’s own brushes with violence and harassment and Mann’s long term involvement and dedication to social justice causes in tandem with Mann’s discovery and love of theater. Greene links the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the assassinations of beloved leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mann’s finding her life’s work.

Biographer Alexis Greene in her office photo: Charles Chessler

“(Alexis Greene) elegantly traces how Emily Mann became herself, and how her personal and political engagements with immigration, civil rights, anti-Semitism, feminism, and social justice became the palimpsest for her vital, indelible, inspiring artistic, professional, and personal life” —Jill Dolan, Annan Professor of English and Theatre, Princeton University

Greene’s book shows Mann as she begins as an energetic budding director and playwright at Radcliffe where she meets and collaborates with Christopher Durang, Ed Zwick and others who would be part of her life in the theater. During this time she also goes to London and makes a connection to Tony Richardson who is directing his former wife, Vanessa Redgrave, and Julian Glover in Romeo and Juliet at the Bankside Globe; she ends up as his assistant director. Perhaps even more significant, Mann taps into what would become her wheelhouse—theater of testimony—when she interviews a holocaust survivor, Anulla Allen.

Despite many encouraging experiences in her academic life, Greene illustrates how Mann still faced the misguided perception that women can’t have a career as a director and the best that a woman could hope for was to work in children’s theater. This will be a recurring theme throughout Mann’s decades-long calling which will send her to playhouses around the country including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Princeton, Portland, Chicago, New York and beyond.

Left to Right: Jay Patterson, John Spencer, and Kurt Schweickhardt in Execution of Justice, written and directed by Emily Mann, at the Guthrie Theater, 1985. PHOTO: JOSEPH G. GIANNETTI/GUTHRIE THEATER

Greene depicts the people Mann has worked with, illuminating her approach to the work as fluid and constructive; she will be known for this approach throughout her career. Mann’s personal life and health struggles are also included and here, too, Greene is thorough in her presentation of a woman who is focused on moving forward and facing whatever comes.

Greene’s careful examination of Mann’s dedication to the theater follows as she navigates through a tumultuous adventure forging a path through the industry. The narrative is not so much swashbuckling as it is consistent. The frustrations, disappointments, trials and errors are all laid out for scrutiny. This is not the story of a wunderkind who rides the wave of stardust to stellar and sustained adoration.

Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater reveals Mann’s deep work towards growth and understanding theater trade and craft. Readers looking for a scandalous tell-all or juicy behind-the-scenes gossip should look elsewhere. This book is a clear-eyed attempt to bring the contribution of women in theater to the forefront and assign them  their rightful place in history. It is an important document on the path to gender equity and should be on the shelf of anyone making theater today.

Emily Mann’s legacy, according to Greene, appears to be of an artist who fought her entire career for her values and confronted the negatives and in some cases was able to change them. Greene’s obvious respect for Mann who ran a theater, forged testimonial drama, directed, raised a son, and made a home, all at the same time, also leaves room for the possibility of more to come.

Martine Sainvil is a Brooklyn-based Playwright and Communications Specialist. Recent credits include: The Mary Lou Shine (2021 New Shokan Kitchen Island Project – Put A Woman On A Pedestal!), Strange Happenings At The Library (2021 Luna Stage), Indispensable (2020 Resonance Ensemble Waldman Play Development Program). Previously, Director of Communications at the Broadway League and was on the publicity team for various Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

Kate McLeod is a playwright, lyricist, librettist, author and reporter. Her plays have been performed and produced in New York throughout the northeast, in London and Alaska. Kate and her collaborator, Megan Cavallari are in the process of developing a musical. hosted by Julia’s Reading Room hosted a reading of her new monologue play, For The Love of Me. She is a regular participant in the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive since 2019. Dramatists Guild; Former Executive Board now Board member, League of Professional Theater Women, MFA, Catholic U.  Journalist; Author, Beetlemania, The Car That Captured The Hearts of America.

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