A 300-year-old scarred oak tree could be considered a central character of “How to Make a Rope Swing,” a new play to be staged by Salt Lake Acting Company.
Playwright Shawn Fisher explains that the oak tree, under which Southern slaves once cooked and scarred the tree with their open-air fire, is just one of the “sparks that came together at the same time” to influence his writing.
“While the tree grew larger, the scar was covered but still there to see,” he says. “I was intrigued by how that scar was linked to the history of slavery.”
Fisher also wove into the play stories related to him by his grandmother, Cora Fisher, who was school superintendent in the Ocean City, N.J., area where Fisher was raised. “I found it interesting that she held some pretty distinct racial attitudes but was mandated to integrate schools there.”
He adds, “A big part of the play thematically is what has been the evolution of racism and culture and classism. And those are subjects that I’ve been interested in.”
The fictional Mrs. Delores Wright, a beloved but stern matriarch, school principal and former teacher, is the de facto main character of the play. Mrs. Wright and Arthur “Bo” Wells, a dedicated custodian and longest-serving African-American school employee, are meeting in a soon-to-be-demolished school building. They have been selected to decide on a person who reflects the history and spirit of the town to name the new school building after.
“I don’t particularly make any attempt to teach a lesson or moral, that’s not the business I’m in as a writer,” Fisher explains. “But I do like to show the various sides of our culture, good and bad. I hope that the audience will recognize and relate to some of the conflicts and some of the concerns in the experiences of these characters.”
“It’s a very complex play, in terms of the way the issues of the play are woven through it,” says director Adrianne Moore. “The characters are really engaging. The play has strong themes, but there’s not a single message that you want the audience to walk away with.”
Theater colleagues at Utah State University, Moore and Fisher together developed the play through its three professional stage readings that were prior to the first full staging at Salt Lake Acting Company.
“Shawn is a very gratifying playwright to work with as a director,” Moore says. “He is very open to suggestions but he also has a very clear sense of what the voice of the characters should be and what needs to happen. You don’t have to be afraid to make suggestions and you don’t need to be concerned that you will unduly influence him. It’s been a very creative partnership.”
If you go
What: “How to Make a Rope Swing”
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company
When: Feb. 6–March 3
How much: $42-$15
Tickets: 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org