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Remembering Atlanta playwright, poet and storyteller Frank Manley

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Editors’ note: The Atlanta writer and Renaissance scholar Frank Manley, a beloved member of the community, died in November. Vincent Murphy, an Emory University professor and former artistic producing director of Theater Emory, wrote this affectionate tribute for ArtsCriticATL. — Pierre and Cathy

By VINCENT MURPHY

On Monday, Feb. 1, several major theater artists will join the late Frank Manley at the campfire he invoked in his beautiful, haunting play, “The Evidence.” In this drama, a Bigfoot creature also shows up at the campfire, often with the look of a dearly departed family member. I expect to see, at least in my mind’s eye, Frank at this fireside — where we will tell stories about him and read selections from the astonishing breadth of his plays, poetry, novels and short stories.

 

Frank Manley

 

In 1989, Frank was on the committee that hired me as the artistic producing director of Theater Emory. I asked about him — this distinguished Renaissance scholar and poet — and was told he also wrote fiction and plays. When I was back visiting my hometown, Boston, I looked up a review of his “Two Masters” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which starred a pre-Oscar winning Kathy Bates. Kevin Kelly, the Boston Globe’s nationally admired theater critic, wrote, “Frank Manley has the uncanny ability to dramatize scenes that, at first, seem alien and almost incidental, only to reveal themselves as universal.” As I was to discover, this was so true.

In my first few months at Emory University, I asked Frank if he was working on a play. He admitted, nervously, that he had two characters set in the Georgia mountains that he wanted to fashion into a play about belief. He was nervous, he said, because he had only adapted his (terrific) short stories into plays, and this was his first direct leap to the stage.

I asked him to sit in my office and tell me the story. He did. What seemed “alien and almost incidental” so engaged my mind and heart that I immediately committed to a workshop to develop the play with professional actors, our gifted dramaturgs, and me as the director in the winter of 1990.

Frank found the play. Our workshop of “The Evidence” launched The Brave New Works program and The Playwriting Center of Theater Emory, which Frank co-founded, a few years later. After we premiered “The Evidence,” Frank went on to write five more plays at The Playwriting Center that then premiered at the Alliance, PushPush, Actors Theatre of Louisville and Theater Emory — all winning various critics’ Best Play of the Year citations. “The Cockfighter” was also made into a feature film that won first prize at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Frank’s work concerned itself with ordinary, working class people and families, primarily Southerners, struggling past self-doubt and surprising desires, with the aching need to find hope. As Frank wrote in his moving novel “True Hope”:

“My momma used to talk about hope. She used to say that’s all we have. God smiles on His children. I didn’t know what she meant, of course, because I wasn’t old enough yet. You got to lose hope to know what it is. But I remember sitting out on the porch hearing my momma sing that song and all the bugs and stars in the world making a racket, and the whole world felt just like a promise. That was the closest I ever got to it. I was just a young boy then. I had my whole life in front of me. I’d sit there and think about all the wonder and glory to come, and something rose up in my heart like a bubble, I loved it so much. I was so grateful. I still am.”

A year shy of 80, Frank died Nov. 9, 2009, at his home in Atlanta. He is survived by many family members in Atlanta, Augusta and Charlotte, including his wife and high school sweetheart, Carolyn; his daughters Mary Carolyn Heath and Evelyn Frances Manley; his sister Evalyn, and six grandchildren.

All are welcome to celebrate this exceptional artist and man at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel, Feb. 1. The main service is 4:15- 5:15 p.m., followed by a short reception with food and drink, and then the “campfire” reading and stories about Frank starting at 5:30 p.m. For more information, send an email to: theaterinfo@learnlink.emory.edu.

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