Sometimes, a notion that seems far removed from one’s own life can take him very close to home.
Prolific young playwright Marcus Gardley was being his usual high-minded self when he started researching an idea for a play about seven years ago. Like novelist Toni Morrison, whom he considers his literary mother, he wanted to craft a story set in an all-black town. Gardley chose Wewoka, Okla., a place where blacks and Indians intermarried after the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears.
One day, he mentioned his work to his father.
“He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mother’s from that town,’ ” Gardley recalled. “‘We got some Seminole in our family.’ I was stunned.”
With added inspiration, Gardley, 35, worked over the next seven years to craft an epic play called “The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry.” The drama opens Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
Directed by Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton, its cast includes Ansa Akyea, George Keller, James Craven, Keli Garrett, Regina Marie Williams and H. Adam Harris.
“He’s a stunning writer, with beautiful language and Greek-scale stories,” said McClinton. “This [play] has the stature of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in terms of how gods and religion influence the characters. But to me the biggest influence is Toni Morrison, because it is so deeply steeped in black and Seminole folklore.”
The play uses Seminole legends in its subplots, including ones about the Earth’s creation on the back of a turtle and the battle between coyote and black bear. There also is the Seminole story about a witch that turns into an owl to chase runaway kids at night.
“I wanted to talk about religion, migration and unity in a community,” Gardley said. “My own family is very divided, which bothers me.” Some family members are on the outs with others, he said, declining to elaborate.
“So I wanted to write about such divisions within a group, a community,” he said. “Since therapy is taboo for many blacks and Native Americans — and people think of it as something for crazy people — I wanted to do this play as a kind of therapy for healing.”
“The Road Weeps” injects surprising humor in dour circumstances. As in many August Wilson plays, ordinary characters use magisterial language. The drama, which has a cast of 11 — mammoth for a contemporary play — distills a story about conflicts of values and religion at a time of privation over a 16-year period that spans the Civil War.
“What drew me to this play was its scale, its language and its story,” said Faye Price, producing artistic director of Pillsbury House. “I had been following its development for years and dreaming of doing it, but couldn’t see how we could” get it done in a 99-seat theater.
Enter the Lark Play Development Center of New York, which, with major grants from the likes of the Mellon Foundation, has been seeking to launch plays with “rolling premieres.” “The Road Weeps” had a spring production at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Other productions are forthcoming in Los Angeles and Tampa, Fla.
“This whole experiment had to do with restoring the role of the playwright as a leader and thinker in the field,” said John Clinton Eisner, president of Lark. “We chose Marcus’ play because of its heft, because of the significant number of cultural questions that it contains and the chance for meaningful community dialogues.”
Gardley grew up in Oakland, Calif., one of three children in a family led by his nurturing minister father and supportive nurse mother. Gardley’s siblings, a brother and a sister, also are writers.
From his early days, Gardley recalls, he was smitten with words, even though his mother wanted him to become an anesthesiologist.
“I think she likes the way that sounds, and I get that,” he said. “I’m also obsessed with the way people use language. We’re poetic beings. People say things that make me go wow. Sometimes I feel like just I’m a collector of tossed-off stories. I’m recording and ear-hustling, as they say.”
Gardley went to San Francisco State University intent on pre-med coursework when he took courses — African-American studies, dramatic literature — that changed his life.
He later earned an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, where he overlapped with another theatrical wunderkind, Tarell Alvin McCraney.
“I gave Tarell his tour when he was first interested in Yale,” he said. “They used to call us the wonder twins.”
Gardley has had a career marked by success. He teaches playwriting at Brown University. Another staging of “The Road Weeps” is in rehearsals in Los Angeles, where his musical, “Song of Paradise,” is about to open. His play, “dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory,” which was partly developed at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, opens at Baltimore’s Centerstage Oct. 9. Gardley’s “Gospel of Lovingkindness” premieres at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre in February, while his Lorca-based play, “The House That Will Not Stand,” premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre in April.
Gardley’s many prizes include the Helen Merrill Award, a Kesselring Honor and ASCAP’s Cole Porter Award.
Not bad for someone who did not see his first play until college. Still, there’s something restless in his spirit.
“There are so many stories, so many great stories to tell,” he said. “I just want to capture them all.”