When singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega was a student in college 30 years ago, she wrote and performed in a one-act 45-minute play about the Southern novelist Carson McCullers, best known for her masterpieces "The Member of the Wedding" and "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." For Vega, her interest with McCullers began with a short story called "Sucker" that she read in the ‘70s.
“I remember really liking it,” she tells Nonstop Sound, “and really feeling like whoever wrote it really understood kids. And I was surprised to find out it was written in the '50s -- so that was the first piece of work I read by her, and then I read a whole bunch of other things too.”
Today Vega revisits Carson McCullers in a revamped and expanded version of her play titled “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” which opens Thursday at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village. It is currently in previews. For this spoken word/musical work, Vega wears multiple hats: she portrays the title character and is also the play’s writer and musical co-composer with fellow songwriter Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening).
Vega says that McCullers had a very difficult life -- she died at age 50 in 1967 -- but was a talented woman who overcame hardships. “She had rheumatic fever as a 15-year-old and that led to a life in which she had a lot of strokes. She was quite disabled halfway through her life. She never let it interfered with her writing. And I just felt the more I’ve gotten to know her writing, the more I see the social vision in her work itself, which is very exciting and very much ahead of her time.”
The singer says that the guiding light for her play was McCullers’ ideology that Agape love (brotherly love) was superior over Eros (erotic love). “I sort of show her in the beginning and especially at the end where she was able to achieve this vision especially in her work , but not always in her life.”
Vega admits that McCullers is one of the strangest people she ever knew on public record, particularly her eccentricity. “She had a reputation of being this really wild child,” she says. “If you actually look at the sequence of her life, very often she ended up going home to her mother to be comforted or to be nursed back to health. In some ways, that’s the secret surprise, not that she was a wild lesbian who had affairs right and left, but this deep connection to her mother.”
As for the music, Vega draws on McCullers’ writings and biography for the lyrical content as if to present the author in her own voice. One of the songs from the play is “Harper Lee,” a reference to the famed author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a contemporary of McCullers.
“I was sort of expressing the sense of dismay that Carson felt because this was one book that Harper Lee wrote," says Vega. "So I think there was some jealousy. But it obviously just wasn't Harper Lee. [McCullers] actually said ‘I have more to say than Hemingway and I say it better than Faulkner.’ So I wrote that to show her catty side, her competitive side, and also to show her peers, she was not afraid to throw rocks at someone's head [like] Hemingway.”
Not counting her appearance in her music videos, Vega hadn’t formally acted since her college days. “Learning my lines has turned out to be an issue,” she says about her foray into acting. “There are moments that I think I'm crazy: 'Why did I write an hour-and-a-half play. I could have just joined someone else's play and done three lines to get my feet wet in the theater world, instead of launching into an hour and a half monologue on an unsuspecting audience.' But that's coming along, I'm getting my lines down. It's been great.”
Depending on the play’s reviews and public interest, Vega would like to take the production on the road after it ends its run on June 5. As for her expectations from audiences about the play, the singer says that she wants them to be moved and to laugh. “It’s half humor and half horror,” Vega says. “In some ways, she had a horrific life, but she has this great will and a great determination to succeed. So I want people to feel sad, I want them to feel happy and this sort of connection with humanity, which I really think that she did feel."
“Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” written by and starring Suzanne Vega, opens Thursday and runs through June 5 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Pl. For information, call 212-627-2556 or visit www.rattlestick.org.