Trethewey’s ‘Native Guard’ opens at Alliance

When a work of literature is so celebrated, so praised for its grace and ambition, it takes a sure hand to try to translate that work into another artistic form.

Or maybe it just takes a fearless one.

Either way, that’s what is happening this week when the Alliance Theatre opens its world-premiere production of “Native Guard,” by poet Natasha Trethewey, on the Hertz Stage.

“Native Guard” was the third book of poetry by Trethewey, an Emory University professor of creative writing. The book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and paved the way for her to become the United States poet laureate in 2012, an appointment she held for two terms.

The 26 poems in the volume take two seemingly unrelated events but bring them together under this idea: Moments in history that have been erased or forgotten should be resurrected to teach us something about who we are right now.

The two events Trethewey chose were the abandonment of black Union soldiers killed by fellow white Union soldiers in 1863, their bodies left to rot without burial. The other event was the murder of Trethewey’s mother by her mother’s second husband. (Her father and her mother’s first husband, Eric Trethewey, was also a poet who taught at Hollins University in Virginia. He died earlier this month at age 71).

Then how does Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth, who is directing the Hertz production of “Native Guard,” bring that to the stage — a 51-page volume of spare, devastating and lovely poems that some might say are best experienced privately and at the reader’s own pace?

“It’s not cutting and pasting poetry into a script,” Booth said. “You don’t do that to a Pulitzer Prize-winning work.”

So what is it? Even Trethewey wondered how this work of hers in particular would be handled. A previous book of her poetry, “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” based on photo portraits of early 1900s prostitutes in New Orleans, had been turned into an opera in 2008. But given the structure of “Native Guard,” she wondered.

“I couldn’t imagine how it’d be different from me reading,” Trethewey said. “But I’ve been amazed at what they could do with it theatrically,” she said after seeing early run-throughs of the work.

They have different recollections of how the subject was broached of bringing the poems to stage (Booth: at a dinner party; Trethewey: through an associate), yet they agree that this is not a play. Trethewey, especially, recoils when hearing that word used to describe the production. But Booth and her artistic team could see how the poems could be, if not reimagined by adding other elements, then certainly enhanced by their addition.

“Natasha brings gorgeous craft, deep curiosity and extraordinary knowledge to her craft,” Booth said. “I wanted to take the best of my trade to create a really evocative world through music, through film.”

The poems stand as they are, all read word for word. Actor Neal Ghant performs the Native Guard, and actress January LaVoy performs the part of the Poet. Where the epigraphs appear in the book, they will instead be sung by Nicole Banks Long, praised highly for her role as Mary Magdalene in the Alliance’s 2009 production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The addition of vocals especially pleased Trethewey, because the epigraphs — by Nina Simone, Walt Whitman and others — are not usually included aloud during her own readings, though she sees them as integral parts of the work.

“I fell in love with the vocalist,” Trethewey said. “Every time she opens her mouth to sing, my heart breaks a little each time.”

The show runs roughly an hour. But that is just Act One, as it is being called. The second Act is actually an audience discussion of the issues raised in the work.

“The notion that there is one singular meaning is every bit as reductive as people saying there’s one word to describe her poetry,” Booth said.

Booth said she likes to think of the second act as sort of a book club discussion, which will include wine, “because all good book clubs must have chardonnay,” Booth said jokingly.

But the themes of erasure, loss and ultimately, remembrance are ones Booth and the poet are hopeful audiences will want to discuss long after the last line is spoken. And that anyone who has ever had any trepidation around poetry will through this production have found a new entry point to the art form.

“What will be a deeply satisfying outcome is if I can relieve some of that poetry anxiety,” Booth said.

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