Friday, April 27, 2012

What Happens When Great Writers Get Together

Scene from Welcome Home
There’s something fascinating about famous writers spending time together.

Recently I’ve been reading Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. I don’t know how accurate his reminisces are, but I’m enjoying them. I am enthralled to have a glimpse into Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920s, into a circle of writers and friends that included Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

This may seem silly, but my reaction is a little like the way I feel when I find a People Magazine in a doctor’s office. But where People gets me thinking about beauty and style, writers hanging out with writers gets me thinking about art and ideas and the way writers can change the world, and the ways they challenge and inspire each other.

This kind of intersection of great minds—and of big hearts—is at the center of a play that will be performed at the Opera House this Sunday afternoon. The play is Welcome Home, written by Courtney Smith, a playwright from Greenbrier County. It explores the friendship between Pearl S. Buck, Oscar Hammerstein II and James A. Michener.

What a trio of decorated writers! All three won Pulitzer Prizes. Pearl Buck also received a Nobel Prize; Oscar Hammerstein won two Academy Awards and eight Tony Awards for his work writing musicals such as The Sound of Music and The King and I. Another of his famous musicals was South Pacific, which was an adaptation of one of James Michener’s famous novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Michener also penned best-sellers like Hawaii and Centennial and Mexico.

The three became friends while living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Welcome Home follows the ups and downs of their careers and their personal lives, as well as the entire nation, through a series of imagined scenes between the three friends from 1949 through 1960.

Running through the background is Pearl’s work at her fledgling adoption agency, the Welcome House, which was breaking new ground by trying to place Asian children with American families. Michener and Hammerstein helped Pearl spread the word and raise money, and both eventually welcomed adopted children into their own families: Michener adopted two children himself, and two others became Hammerstein’s grandchildren.

In the opening scene of the play, Oscar Hammerstein comes to Pearl’s house for the first time, and she asks him to get involved with the Welcome House. When he asks about the difficulty of placing “half-caste” children in American homes, Pearl responds by saying, “Oscar, we do not use that ugly term around here. After all, we’re all half-castes if you trace it back far enough.”

This quote, like many others in the play, is derived from a line from Pearl’s real life that Smith unearthed while reading biographies.

“The three of them are such eloquent and wonderful writers that I thought their words should speak for them,” Smith says. “So when I found all these quotes, in essence what I did was more sewing or stitching or weaving. I strung them together in a way that tells a story. I wanted to audience to feel like they were eavesdropping in on a conversation that the three of them could have been having.”

This is Smith’s ninth play. She got the idea for it while attending an event at the Birthplace featuring Pearl Buck biographer Peter Conn. She read his book, and while Pearl’s friendship with the two other writers was mentioned only fleetingly, it captured her attention.

 “What brings three great writers together like that? It was interracial understanding and adoption. What could be better than that? I want people to know about it.”

The four actors in Welcome Home are Stephanie Bachman, Larry Davis, Danny Boone and Jim Norris. They bring years of experience to the stage, including at the Greenbrier Valley Theater.

Following the play, two representatives of the Pearl S. Buck International Foundation and the Welcome House will speak about the ongoing work of the Pearl’s adoption agency, which is still in operation more than fifty years after she founded it. The PSBI also owns and runs tours at the home where Pearl lived for nearly four decades after moving back from China in the 1930s, and where Smith’s play is set.

The speakers will be Janet Mintzer, CEO of Pearl S. Buck International, and David Yoder, who is both chairman of the PSBI board and the first child ever adopted through Pearl’s Welcome House (he’s mentioned in the first scene of Smith’s play!).

There is no charge for the events on Sunday afternoon, though the Birthplace is asking for a donation of $7 to help us raise much needed funds for maintenance and renovation.

We hope you will join us. We would love to have a strong turnout to listen to the talk by our Pearl Buck neighbors from the north and to see a great play by a local playwright!

by Jolie Lewis, Vice President, Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation

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