Poet-playwright Marcus Gardley is one of theater’s—and our faculty’s—great rising talents
UMass Amherst counts among the ranks of its faculty one of the most heralded of today’s new theatrical talents: poet and playwright Marcus Gardley, who teaches in both the Theater and Afro-American departments. Gardley especially hopes to get students with an innate bias toward film “excited about theater as a performance art.” For their part, his students are thrilled to have one of the most promising dramatic voices of our time help them develop their own voices, craft, and appreciation of theater.
A native of West Oakland, California, Gardley is the product of a family of preachers. “I grew up in a bad neighborhood,” he recalls, “but the church was a haven for me and my siblings. There was so much love and support that we never got distracted by the streets.” He now calls theater “church for me, because it’s the place where souls are moved.”
Gardley bases much of his work on historic events, which he imbues with a magical realism that lends them a folkloric or even mythic quality. To cite only three examples, his “every tongue confess,” given a much-praised production at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 2010, was inspired by a spate of unsolved arsons at black churches in Alabama in 1996; “On the Levee,” presented at Lincoln Center, deals with events surrounding the great Mississippi flood of 1927; and Gardley has written three plays about black Seminoles and relations between blacks and Native Americans in the South.
While Gardley always wanted to teach, he expected to do so at the high-school level. After earning his MFA in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, however, he was offered a position as an adjunct faculty member in Columbia University’s creative writing program. He found the post rewarding but a drain on his writing time. When Columbia discontinued the program, he went through a period of writing much but earning little. Now at UMass Amherst he has found what he calls “the perfect opportunity to teach and write and be able to survive.”