October 7, 2015
Remembering Lynn Manning
Cornerstone had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Manning in the mid-90s during our 15-month residency making plays in and with Watts. We partnered with the local community to create three original productions and a culminating bridge show that united African American and Latino residents onstage and in the audience. Lynn Manning wrote this bridge show, the Ovation Award-winning play The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, based upon Eric Bently’s version of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. (He acted in it, too.) This collaboration sparked the development of The Watts Village Theater Company, which flourished under Lynn’s inspired and innovative stewardship, and which now heads into their 20th year of making original work that reflect the rich history, cultural diversity and underserved populations of South Los Angeles. Lynn Manning continued to be an important artistic colleague for Cornerstone, as an actor, an artistic and community leader, and as a playwright. Cornerstone partnered with Watts Village Theater Company in 2011 for a production of his play, The Unrequited (Between Two Worlds). Three months ago our companies reunited to read The Central Avenue Chalk Circle and discuss together a new Watts Village production of it. Lynn was a resilient artist and a community visionary who deeply touched countless people throughout his life. Above all, Lynn was a friend and we’d like to honor his legacy by sharing some fond memories of our time together:
“Lynn was a master of aperture. He could land us in the middle of an intimate moment between a mother and child, then blow it open to reveal the world splitting apart at the seams. And all of this was a reality just a few steps down the street or days into the future. Lynn had his fingers on the pulse of the room, a joke, an irony, at the tip of his tongue, a half smile on his handsome face. Lynn had vision, deeper and broader than most of us. We will truly miss him here, even as he’s smiling down on us, his community, tossing in a quip, and urging us towards the possibilities. Love, Page”
“Lynn’s writing is visceral, irreverent, funny, sometimes shocking, brave and challenging. It is clearly the work of an artist who was unafraid to go to very difficult places, to empathize with characters and people who can be hard to like, to speak truth to power (often hilariously) and who was a deeply humane and generous person. When I met Lynn, after reading several of his plays, he was all that and more. I will miss him, and am forever grateful that he left us this amazing legacy or plays and of people who were influenced by him and his work.”
“I first had the opportunity to meet Lynn Manning in the fall of 2001, when I moved to Southern California. The university I had just joined was hosting his performance of Weights, and in those first few weeks, Lynn’s presence on our campus shaped my aspirations for the work that my colleagues and I could do together in Redlands.
Some years later, with Cornerstone, I had the opportunity to work more closely with Lynn, on one of our company’s collaborations with Watts. I wish I had a photo of our design meetings for Unrequited (Between Two Worlds) Lynn’s adaptation of The Dybbuk. As the set designer, I had prepared a series of sketches laying out the progression of scenes in a scenic story board illustrating how the action moved and transformed the space. During our design meeting, as we talked through the elements, director Shishir Kurup, described each image, its title and its content, connecting the images to the moments that Lynn had written, as we shared our visual ideas in support of Lynn’s poetry. Lynn’s capacity to see the moments, as he heard them, and as we described their composition, color, texture, materials was extraordinary. For me, it was an example of the power of his imagination to create a world rich in artistry and human potential. And, close to the end of his life, as he joined us at Cornerstone to imagine future projects, and then traveled to DC in support of the anniversary of the ADA, his powerful imagination, the ability to imagine the future so fully, in what he knew to be close to the last days of his life is profoundly humbling and inspiring.”
“I had the good fortune to act in Lynn’s Central Avenue Chalk Circle and compose all the songs for that production. 12 songs. Not a baker’s dozen. It was a pivotal moment for this company as well since the production won Cornerstone our first Ovation Award for Best Play in a Small Theater of 1995. It helped to legitimize us in the LA Art scene. And bridged the gap between our reputation as a social service institution and a bona fide theater company. I got to play The Storyteller and later Azdak the Judge. And I got to write songs to Lynn’s lyrics such as:
‘It is a Soldier’s duty
To go smiling into war,
To leave behind his Cutie
For some blood-soaked foreign shore
If his girlfriend knows her duty
She will send him to battle sore
She’ll smother him with booty
For he might not get no more’
Dark and funny! How can you not smile hearing that? Made it a lot easier to write the melodies!!
Lynn and I also worked for Great Leap where we did excerpts of our solo performances. Mine was Assimilation and later Sharif Don’t Like It. And his was WEIGHTS. About his getting shot in a bar at the age of twenty where the bullet severed his optic nerves and lodged itself into the side of his skull. He met this challenge that would make a lesser person wither by making the decision that he would now have a different way of seeing the world and would make us all see what he heard, smelt and felt. He was tall and powerful, a blind judo champion, poet, playwright and rabble rouser. He had a stentorian voice and delivered his poetry thus. He had an easy and rumble of a laugh. But he also had a fragility about him and taught everyone who encountered him how to comport oneself in the presence of the blind by making the experience a quotidian one rather than an exotic encounter. One little tidbit on that account. Whenever we cast Lynn in the plays he was involved in with us which were his Chalk Circle and Lisa Loomer’s Broken Hearts, he suggested that we cast him as sighted and that he would be able to pass as such. This was of course what we did and wanted to do and in the process created ways to make it safe for him and for the other actors and as always he was the one guiding us on how to make it happen best. His vision for what he could manage and the confidence with how we were going to achieve it was always crystal clear.
I drove him home many times in 1995 during Chalk Circle then many times in 2011 when I directed his Watts remake of The Dybbuk renamed Unrequited (Between Two Worlds). There was nothing unrequited about Lynn Manning. He gave as good as he got (to mix metaphors) and never mused on what he missed out on; because fate gave him the chance to walk in the shoes of a Black Man, a Poet, a Playwright, a Blind Man and an Artistic and Mystic Savant and he took all of that and ran with it, never apologizing, taking advantage of or bemoaning his wretched state. Then came the threat of diabetes, but diabetes ran when Lynn tore into it and righted his sugar. And, not unlike that soldier who went smiling into war, Lynn didn’t flinch when cancer came calling. And while those of us who were left out of his process as he made war and peace with the dire prognosis were deeply saddened by the suddenness of his passing we all understood that he continued to live life in the only way he seemed to know how to. On his own terms.
I will miss him in this world but I will take with me all that I have learned from our 20+ years of friendship and tutelage.”