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Playwright brings the story of a Columbus 'hidden figure' to the Springer

Playwright Natalia Temesgen talks about writing adapting Eugene Bullard biography for stage

When Springer Opera House artistic director Paul Pierce asked local playwright Natalia Naman Temesgen to adapt the Eugene Bullard story for the stage she embraced it, and based it on the biography by Columbus historian Craig Lloyd. Natalia discuss
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When Springer Opera House artistic director Paul Pierce asked local playwright Natalia Naman Temesgen to adapt the Eugene Bullard story for the stage she embraced it, and based it on the biography by Columbus historian Craig Lloyd. Natalia discuss

An old story will be told publicly for the first time.

This week, the Springer Opera House opens “ACE: The Eugene Bullard Story,” a play based on the life of a Columbus native and war hero.

Natalia Naman Temesgen, the playwright of “ACE,” is no stranger to telling stories. A native of Columbus, Temesgen attended Brookstone School before studying English and African American Studies at Princeton and Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has always had a love of telling stories about “hidden figures” throughout history, and uncovering Eugene Bullard’s story was no exception.

Temesgen recently sat down with Sunday Arts reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss how she became the playwright for “ACE” and what audience members can expect from the world premiere at the Springer. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you fall in love with the story of Eugene Bullard?

A: Well, it’s so crazy how this whole thing started. Just over a year ago, I put up a Facebook post about how I wished there was more space on the stages of Columbus for stories that were different. Paul Pierce saw it and reached out to me and said, “I’d love to talk to you about something.”

That phone call from Paul ended up being him telling me he’s always wanted to have a play done about Bullard.

Q: So it came from Paul? That’s really interesting.

A: Yes, Paul has known this story for years. Craig Lloyd, who is a retired history professor from Columbus State University, wrote what I think is probably the most thorough biography on Bullard. We still have a lot of the archives here at the library from when he wrote that book. Paul had read that book years ago, and had always wanted to see a play done.

So Paul reached out to me and told me Eugene’s story on the phone. In a nutshell, you know. For 15 minutes, I’m walking around my garage while he’s telling me the craziest story about this guy. So I’m going through the different thoughts. You know, “Oh my God, this is amazing. I have to do this.” “But wait — I don’t know about World War I and World War II. This is not my field. I want to tell this story, but vaudeville? Boxing? Horses? But then by the end of the call, I was like “Yes. Absolutely. I want to write this play. Thank you for thinking of me, and thank you for thinking of this story.”

So literally within two weeks it was a season announcement. I was still reading the biography and I hadn’t written a word. I had to get up on stage and talk about this play I barely knew anything about what was going to be in it. So it’s been this amazing whirlwind of coming from the point of that level of ignorance about him to really feeling like I understand a lot more and then writing this version of his life. And now we’re going to have it up. It’s crazy. In one year.

Q: That’s fast. So when did you finish the first draft?

A: So I finished the first draft that was kind of missing the ending last year in May.

Q: You wrote the whole thing in six weeks?

A: Yeah, the way that I had to do it was that there were a handful of Saturdays where my husband would have the kids and then he’d take them to my mom for the afternoon. I was just at the Springer in one of their classrooms all day writing.

Q: All day?

A: Yep. And what I was doing was trying to outline. I’m actually not much of an outliner when I’m writing a script, but when it’s someone’s life, you want to think “OK, this seems important and this seems important. Now how are they connected in a narrative way?”

So I had the big blackboards that they have in those classrooms full of arrows connecting things and going around. I got them the first draft before Springer Camp started. Didn’t think about it all summer because I was too busy. Then I think it was around September when I had to turn in the full draft.

So Paul and I met then through the fall. He would give me feedback and I would make changes. Probably two or three drafts, you know, with all of the revisions. But we didn’t hear it out loud until this year.

Q: Did you find yourself relating to the character?

A: Yeah, I did. I am always interested in the other fringe characters. Not necessarily as a principle, but I’d say out of the 10 plays I’ve written, most of them are stories about African-American or minority characters. One of them is actually about a Mexican immigrant. But I’m interested the idea of the representation question. You want to see stories that you’ve never seen, and you want to be able to invite people who might not feel like they’re maybe meant to be in the audience. I want to say, “Yes you are. Because we are telling your stories, too. You need to come see this, too.”

Q: Natalia, that’s beautiful. It’s very moving.

A: Yeah. Well it’s that feeling, right? When you’re watching a movie on TV and you’re like, “I really love that movie, but there was no one in the movie that looked like me or reminded me of myself.” Eugene reminded me of myself to a degree. Except he’s way braver than me. He’s far more adventuresome.

What I do identify with is the fact that he was comfortable being the outsider if it meant he could get to a higher place in his life. That’s pretty much what he did. He left home after a lynch mob threatened his dad. His dad left for a few weeks because he needed to sort of hide out. He did come back and live out the rest of his life in Columbus. However, in the period that he was away Eugene — who I believe was 10 at the time — decided that these were not the circumstances he wanted for his life. He was one of seven kids, and he was right in the middle. The older boys were sort of working a lot, but he was kind of raising his siblings at home.

Q: What do you mean?

A: His mother died when he was very young, so a lot of the child care fell to him. While his father was away, he decided that he didn’t want to just stay home raising children and dealing with the racism of the culture. So he started making his way to Atlanta with whatever money he found around the house. And that was it. He never came home again. Ever.

Q: He never came home again? Or never back to Columbus?

A: He might have come home once after he’d been away at war, but this would have been in the later part of his life. But he never saw his dad again.

Once Eugene escaped on a freight ship to Europe, he began fighting in the war. Somehow his dad found out from one of the black newspapers that his son’s name was among those whowere fighting. So he wrote a letter to a government entity in Washington, D.C. Basically, he wrote to tell them that his son was not old enough to be fighting, and that he wanted them to send him home to Columbus.

They probably never even passed that message on to anybody. I don’t think that Eugene ever knew that message had been sent. I think that’s something that Craig found. But he did look for him. Once, at least. But they never saw each other again.

And that’s a big thing that we focus on in the play. That lost relationship with his father.

Q: Is he though? Most heroes returned home as a hero. But unfortunately, he wouldn’t have been perceived that way at the time.

A: No, that’s true, he wasn’t received as a hero here.

Q: Isn’t that hard to understand? And so unfortunate?

A: Yes! I mean, even in my research I encountered documents where Eugene was saying that when U.S. reporters came to interview the pilots flying in the war, they would only talk to the white pilots. They never interviewed him because of the color of his skin. They wouldn’t talk to him.

So he felt a deep connection to France. When he came back to the United States, he stayed connected with French organizationsbecause he was a nobody here. It wasn’t until he was working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center when Dave Garroway, who was the producer of the “Today Show,” just kind of happened to ask him, “Hey what are those pins on your jacket?” And he tells him a little bit of the story and Garroway says, “Dude, what? You’ve been in our elevator all of this time? We need to get you on the show!” That’s when the story came out. But even after that, he sort of still fell into obscurity.

Q: So did he have any children? Are any of his family members coming to the premiere?

A: He did have children, but they are probably not still living. We did give a little talk at the Rotary Club recently and someone emailed us afterward and they think that they found a distant cousin of his that’s still relatively local — domeone who was working on Fort Benning, I think. So they’re trying to see if they can get her to come.

Another thing that is sort of really bizarre to me is that so many of the elevators in Columbus are serviced by someone with the last name of Bullard. I just keep thinking, “Who is this guy?”

Q: Are you involved in the production process?

A: Yes. So generally, the process would be that if someone wanted your play, the show that you wrote, you usually don’t have any role outside of getting the contract signed and maybe attending the opening or something.

But what Paul has done is actually something closer to the Mentor Project that I did in New York where I was able to develop with them a new play into a production. That’s what Paul has allowed me to do by letting me be in the room. He’s directing it. And he has that authority and I certainly have no interest in directing anything. I am too passive for directing. But what’s great is that, you know, plays are meant to be produced. I mean, you can read them and enjoy them, but you don’t get the full experience. Not until the bodies are on stage, and the words are coming out of someone’s mouth, and the physicalization that’s written in the script is being played out with people actually inhabiting that world. So I need to be as present as possible as that takes place because I am going to continue to learn things about the story until we close the show.

I won’t be able to make any changes now, because the actors will have to be off book. But before I send it to any other theaters in the future, I am sure there will be things from what I learn during that actual production process that will affect the final version of the script.

I am very grateful that Paul is letting me be so involved. I also used to dance so Paul is letting me choreograph all of the brief dances in the show. There’s a Charleston, some Black Bottom, and other 20s dances that I’m excited to work on for the stage.

Q: What else is there to know about your writing of the play in particular?

A: Well, I think it’s important to say that it’s a world premiere. It’s always a great thing to say, “I was there the first time they produced that play.”

I’ll also mention that they are going to do a reading of “ACE” in Boston this spring.

Q: What else do you want people to know about the production?

A: What is exciting to me about this is that I’m getting to help tell the story of this man. I just saw “Hidden Figures” and I was like, “Yes to this movie!” Because I didn’t know that such important space moments happened with the help of black women at a time when black women were sort of obscured and out of sight. That was cool.

So to me, now, I like to use the phrase “hidden figure” when talking about Eugene. Because he is. We missed out on celebrating him while he was alive. I mean, that’s how I feel about it. He was, as a kid, you know, exposed to some pretty violent stuff that we’re, I’m sure, collectively ashamed of.

Q: Absolutely. And it happened here in our town.

A: Yes. And yet he went on to find something hopeful. Sort of the theme of the play is this hunt for this elusive ideal of freedom and being able to seen for just who you are. And he found that for a time. Unfortunately, WWII brought American racism along with American soldiers, so he lost it again. He comes back and we can’t celebrate him, because we are at a point in our own history where we can’t really celebrate, you know, black folks doing awesome things in general. You know, we had to go through some sort of protocol before we could celebrate them. So it’s just really exciting. And that’s what’s getting me really fired up about the show. We have an opportunity to honor the legacy of someone — a hero — who is from here that we sort of completely ignored. We get to honor when he was here.

The things he did — and sure he was fighting for France — but he was fighting for our freedoms, too. France and America were allies. So people need to come see it because this is our history. I mean, he was from Columbus. This is our hero. This is our guy.

Natalia Temesgen

Hometown: Columbus

Formal education: Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in African American Studies in Theatre from Princeton University and Master of Fine Arts from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Dramatic Writing

Occupation: Lecturer for the Department of English at Columbus State University, Columnist for the Ledger-Enquirer, Affiliate Artist at the Springer Opera House, Playwright

If you go

What: “ACE: The Eugene Bullard Story”

When: March 30-April 8; Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. March 30, 31, April 1, 6, 7, 8 and & 2:30 April 2

Where: McClure Theatre, Springer Opera House, 103 E. 10th St.

Cost: $17-$37

Call: springeroperahouse.org

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