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"My very first concern was retaining the integrity of the playwright."

The Screenwriter

Interview  |  Bio

The screenwriter may devise an original script, re-work an existing story from a novel or stage play, or flesh out an idea proposed by a producer or director. But in any case he or she is the first person who thinks of the movie as a whole, as a story, peoples it with the motivated characters to move it forward, and imagines what all of these people will say to each other. That's a great deal, and screenwriters sometimes rightly feel that they aren't given the credit they deserve for the essential structural foundations established in their screenplays. The key word here, however, is "foundations." A script, unlike a novel or even a play, is not a finished work of art; it is the blueprint for an edifice that will be painstakingly constructed, one long shooting day at a time, by the eventual Director and his crew. The exception is when the writer is also the director, a phenomenon quite common in the arena of independent filmmaking (and made respectable by the "auteurist" prejudices of French New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut). Otherwise, the screenwriter must eventually cede control of the material to the director and the actors. If he is temperamentally capable of doing this, and if he has won the trust of the director, a screenwriter can nevertheless be an invaluable collaborator on the set, by creating new lines of dialog on the fly, by executing spot re-writes, and above all by keeping an eagle eye on what might called the "Higher Continuity" of a film, questions of thematic and narrative coherence.


Sizing Up the Play

"I read the play to see if it made sense to me, because it's the writer's obligation to make the changes necessary to make it clear to the audience. I also employed an economy of language -- what to cut and still keep the through line. That was a much bigger problem than writing new scenes, because those came out of my own imagination."

"When I first read the play, I was somewhat confused. I knew it was about two sisters, I knew there was a big jealousy, but I never quite understood why Quilly was so mean-spirited. I didn't feel the full dimension of why she behaved the way she did. If you don't get that kind of sympathy she'll come off as a comic character only."

The Task of Adaptation

"The very first challenge was to retain the integrity of the initial writer. The playwright is a living, breathing author whose work is still being done as we speak, as opposed to taking a fairytale or something that's very old or by a dead author. Once I was able to let that go, it became easier to bring in new characters, or as Debbie said, 'open it up.'"

"Sometimes things said onstage can be redundant. When dialogue was redundant, I cut it back. Some of it was an aesthetic preference. Sometimes it might have actually been a feminist statement. I might not have liked the way certain things were said about women."

"Most of Phylicia's input was about her character and much of Debbie's input was directorial. Phylicia wanted to speak mostly about her relationship with Husband. And then the producers had their thoughts on the economics of the project. 'How many characters are you going to have?' It was like solving a big puzzle."

Capturing the Period

"I enjoyed working in the period. Some things belong to an era. When I grew up, on Mother's Day you wore a white carnation if your mother had died. I don't know where it came from, but this is something in black churches. You wore red if your mother was living, white if she died... I also knew of Roosevelt's 'Fireside Chats' so when the two sisters come home and the radio is playing, I wanted it to be the voice of FDR."


Shauneille Perry is a director, writer and educator. A graduate of Howard University and The Art Institute of Chicago, she was also a Fulbright Fellow to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In 1960, at the beginning of the Black Arts Movement, she moved to New York and became the first major Black woman director after Vinnette Carroll.

Ms. Perry's writing career began as a reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Daily Defender. She is the author of Pearl, a short story collection; six produced plays for young people; and the musicals Sass and Class, Daddy Goodness, In Dahomey and Celebration, an African odyssey that toured for fourteen years. She created and wrote the radio series, Sounds of the City and Bittersweet, and the television series, Watch Your Mouth and Our Street. Her most recent work is the teleplay, The Old Settler, adapted from the play by John Henry Redwood.

Since 1972 she has directed 24 plays at the New Federal Theater, including the acclaimed Black Girl, which ran off-Broadway for two years, toured the United States and was made into a film. Her directing credits total over one hundred plays, including Williams & Walker with Vondie Curtis Hall and Ben Harney, the original Sty of the Blind Pig for NEC, Celebration at The American Place Theatre, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, and Strivers Row in Bermuda.

Ms. Perry's writing and directing work have earned her four Audelco Awards, two Ceba Awards, The Lloyd Richards Award for Directing at the North Carolina Black Theatre Festival, The Black Rose of Excellence from Encore Magazine, Distinguished Howard Player and Alumni Awards, and a Lehman Scholar Achievement Award. She has taught at seven universities and is currently a Professor of Theatre and Black Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

Shauneille Perry
Shauneille Perry

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