On a busy Monday afternoon, Regina Taylor met me at the Ildiko Butler gallery. The location was a strategic choice—it was public, quiet and a few steps away from Pope Auditorium where the Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award winning actress would be spending most of the day conducting rehearsals for “Magnolia,” the first mainstage production of the year. Wearing a navy dress, chic black jacket and bright pink lipstick, Taylor greeted me with a smile. Her voice is quiet, yet powerful, invoking strength while also being gentle and warm.
Sitting in the gallery with me, Taylor apologized for her busy schedule. With three days until opening, she was in the midst of tech rehearsals for “Magnolia,” a show near and dear to her heart—not only is she directing the production, but she wrote the play as well.
Taylor is this year’s Denzel Washington Endowed Chair, a position she was elected to by the Fordham Theatre program due to her “triple threat” skill as an actress, writer and director. Best known for her role in the acclaimed television series “I’ll Fly Away,” for which she won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Television Drama in 1993, the Dallas-born performer has also starred on film opposite Fordham’s own Denzel Washington in the 1996 thriller “Courage Under Fire.” In addition to her prolific career on screen, Taylor has made strides in the theater community both as an actress and playwright. The first African-American woman to play Juliet in a revival of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway in 1986, Taylor is an accomplished playwright and currently serves as an artistic associate of Chicago’s Goodman Theater.
Surrounded by solemn black and white photographs of the Ildiko Butler Gallery’s “Location, Location, Location” series, I couldn’t help but think about how appropriate our surroundings were for the conversation that was about to unfold. Her play “Magnolia” very much relies on location to tell a story, in this case one about hardship, reclaiming one’s identity and the difficult ways individuals cope with America’s stained history.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia in the midst of the civil rights movement in 1963, “Magnolia” centers on two characters, Thomas and Lily Forrest. With a backdrop of racial tension spurred by a controversial wall being built by Atlanta’s mayor to segregate the city, both Thomas and Lily must return to the Magnolia Plantation, a place they swore they would never go back to. The plantation is up for foreclosure and each character has a different idea about what to do with the property. Lily, the descendent of slave owners, returns with the goal of salvaging her family’s legacy and getting what inheritance she is owed, while Thomas, the descendent of slaves, returns for a different reason—to wrestle with the past and fight the ghosts he is trying to escape.
Though written in 2008, this theme of reclaiming one’s past seems more familiar now than ever.
“We’re in a discussion right now even about what do we do about these certain monuments,” Taylor explained. “Should we knock down those monuments, creating new monuments and new memories? Do we keep those monuments, those places and have it be a place where we can say this happened at this one point and we can’t deny it? There is a conflict in meaning sometimes about what should be done about our past. Can we reclaim it in some way and use it in some type of educational way? That would mean reclaiming an ownership of that place that we didn’t have before as African-Americans.”
She continued, “If we could own it and reshape it somehow is that the compromise in letting it stand? Those points of conflict are what we explore with this piece, certainly those things that we thought we had gone through in terms of civil rights and women’s rights. Looking from the ’50s through the ’60s, we thought we had fought that war and now today we find the conversation out in the open again.”
“This generation is grappling with the same issues that we were dealing with in 1963,” Taylor noted, making “Magnolia” the perfect play to kick off Fordham Theatre’s mainstage season that deals with the tough question: What does it mean to be an American?
“‘Magnolia’ is about race and gender in the country,” Taylor continued, “the legacy of that, the past of that and how it ties to what is happening right now at this present moment. I think it’s important that we look back on our past and try and figure out how we navigate our future. This is not for me a piece of nostalgia that’s separate from the world that were living in right now. It is a point of looking back to figure out strategically how we resist, how we negotiate and how we move forward as we see so much change occurring, threatening to erase the legacy of the civil rights movement.”
Taylor’s role as director of “Magnolia” is only one aspect of being the Denzel Washington chair, a position she is “very honored” to hold. “My experience here at Fordham has been amazing. I have loved every moment of it,” Taylor told me with a smile. “I wake up in the morning and I am excited to come here, to work with, to play, to be inspired by the young creative minds that are here. The actors that are in this piece are brilliant. They’re committed. They are forces of nature. They’re brave. They have the intelligence—the technical part as well as the heart. I’m always very excited to work with them, every day.”
“I have a great admiration for Denzel Washington’s work. The body of work that he has created over his time challenges the images of African-Americans… he’s also quite brilliant in terms of acting, in terms of his directing certainly and his producing. What he chooses to work on is always so conscious. He has made such a great legacy and impact on not just American sentiment, but the world,” Taylor explained. Though she only has a short time here, she hopes to bring that same consciousness to Fordham. “My job is to promote conversation no matter what side of the line you stand on…to promote a dialogue,” she said.
Magnolia runs in Pope Auditorium on Oct. 5–7 and Oct. 11–13.