Profile: Sandra Riley – Writer/Director – Mariah Brown

Writer, director and historian Sandra Riley. (photo courtesy of S.Riley)

How long have you been writing?
During my 40 years of teaching, I ran out of steam a couple of times.  During one hiatus, I took a job as historical researcher for a land development company on the island of San Salvador in The Bahamas. A recession brought me right back to teaching, but I continued my research on my own time and after 10 years I wrote Homeward Bound: A History of the Bahamas to 1850.  I also wrote a novel about the pirate women Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  During that time I met the artist Alton Lowe at his Museum on GTC Abaco.  For the Quincentennial celebrations, Macmillan Caribbean published a novella, The Lucayans, using Alton’s paintings of the first people and my text.

Alton loved theatre, so we produced some plays.  I retired from teaching in 1997 and in 1999 Alton asked me to write a solo play about a woman who grew up on Green Turtle Cay in the 1880s and went to school in Key West.  Miss Ruby was the beginning of my playwriting career and the creation of the Crystal Parrot Players with the mission of presenting works that focus on the historical and cultural connections between South Florida and The Bahamas.  I wrote another solo play to pair with Miss Ruby.  By dipping into the history, I found Matt Lowe, a 17th century Bahamian fisherman and wrecker. These men sailed not only the waters of The Bahamas, but the Florida Straits, Cuba and Barbados.  Our production company performed both plays in GTC and Key West.

What made you decided to write it?
I needed another play to complete my trilogy of solo plays.

What influenced you to take part in theatre?
When I enrolled at Barry College in Miami in 1956 I had no idea what my major study should be.  My student advisor was the drama teacher; she suggested I take her acting class.  I wasn’t much of an actor, but I loved the directing aspect of play production.  She also encouraged me to take the required courses for teaching in the secondary school system.  Degree in hand, I sustained life as a High School Drama teacher by day and pursued my passion to direct plays for community theatres by night.

How did you choose the material?
From my research I knew that Coconut Grove was first settled by Bahamians. They fished in Florida waters since the mid-1600s and many settled in Key West in the early part of the 19th century.  Miami research led me to Mariah Brown.  There was little information about her but she “spoke” to me.  I had to write her story.

Have you performed this show before?
The play was first performed in 2003 in Pagoda at Ransom School, then in 2004 at the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove and the Coconut Grove Playhouse, also at Vizcaya in 2007.  All productions starred Laverne Cuzzocrea, who created the role and will also star in the role for Shakespeare In Paradise.  She brings the history to life.

How do you feel bringing it to The Bahamas for the first time?
I am thrilled.  I offered the play to Nicolette Bethel and Ringplay in 2006 before there was a Shakespeare Festival.  I am beyond grateful to be invited to the 2011 Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival.  Not only does it fulfill the mission of the Crystal Parrot Players to have the play presented in Nassau, but also it is personally satisfying to me.  I first came to Nassau in 1960.  I was 20 and fell in love with the place. I felt a connection, but had no idea that in 1973 I would return and begin historical research which has become my life’s work or ever dreamed that I would be writing plays based on that work.

What have been some of the challenges of writing the play?
It is difficult to write a play.  A play based on history provides unique challenges.  Every day the dramatist does battle with the historian.  As a dramatist I know I must hold fast to the overriding truth, which shows itself as the essence of the work.  The playwright must create a fully developed character, with strong desires and provide conflicting situations that raise the stakes, hurdles the character must overcome to move events along to the climax.  Each solo play in Bahamas Trilogy presented different challenges.  The historical facts often got in the way, but sometimes presented solutions to the dramatic problems.  When I realized that Miss Ruby was in Key West during the time of the Spanish-American War, I had my story—a love story.  I knew what Matt Lowe did for a living, but I didn’t know what he was.  I had to create a character flaw complete with inner conflicting desires to drive the play’s plot.  It was not enough for Mariah Brown to come to South Florida to make a better life for her children, even to create a community for the well being of her friends and neighbors.  She had to want something more—something for herself.  I went to the facts.  I compared the 1885 Key West Census with the 1900 Coconut Grove Census to discover that in 1885 she could not read, but in 1900 she could read.  The desire was strong within her; how she, with 3 children and a near-blind husband managed to learn to read working long hours at the Peacock Inn is the story of Mariah Brown.

Mariah Brown follows the life and exploits of an African-Bahamian that pioneered a community in South Florida and her role in the development of Coconut Grove.

Sandra Riley has participated in theatre for fifty-five years and is the writer and director of Mariah Brown.  She has had notable roles in Oklahoma, The Fantasticks, Anouilh’s Antigone, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Madwoman of Chaillot, On the Verge and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

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