May 9 2012 12:00 AM

Sandra Seaton wins the Study of Midwestern Literature's Mark Twain Award


When East Lansing playwright Sandra Seaton receives the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature´s Mark Twain Award for writing this week, she will join a distinguished group of previous winners, including Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Virginia Hamilton, Ray Bradbury, Jane Hamilton and Jim Harrison.

Seaton, who has been writing plays since the 1960s, is being honored in a ceremony at Michigan State University Friday.

While sipping tea recently at East Lansing´s Wanderer’s Café, Seaton reflected on her career, which included teaching creative writing for 15 years at Central Michigan University.

She said that years ago she would get up at 3 a.m. and write until 6 a.m., when she started to get her twins ready for school.  Then she would drive to Mt. Pleasant to teach at CMU and return to East Lansing late at night to start the process all over again. Her husband, MSU writing Professor James Seaton, would take care of child rearing the rest of the day.

“Most successful women writers don’t have four kids,” Seaton said. 

 In addition to being the focus of two break-out sessions on her writing, Seaton is presenting a reading of her play, “Estate Sale,” at 8 p.m. Friday in Parlor C of the MSU Union.

“Estate Sale” brings together a racially mixed and politically mixed couple as they make preparations with a strange collection of characters for an estate sale.

For Seaton, a planned memorial service at the ceremony for former MSU professor and author David Anderson (who died this last December) is just as important to her as winning the award.

Anderson wrote more than 40 books in his career, mostly on Midwestern writers and themes, and was a tireless cataloguer of Midwestern writing in addition to serving on the Nobel Prize Nomination Committee for a number of years. He was considered one of the foremost experts on the writing of Sherwood Anderson.

“David did more for Midwestern writing than anyone, and he wanted me to get this award,” Seaton said. 

Seaton´s first play, “The Bridge Party,” premiered in 1989. She is known for her plays and librettos on the African-American experience in America. Her collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, “From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” about the mistress of Thomas Jefferson, was presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall in 2001.

Seaton grew up in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, and it is important to her to preserve her childhood memories. “I don’t want that world to be lost; that’s why I write,” she said.

Seaton writes about mostly the experience of the black middle class in America and what she calls “the tacit but adamant refusal of grown-ups to be defined by racism.”

In her most recent play, “Music History,” she follows black college students from the South and the west side of Chicago who are attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1963. The characters in this coming-of-age drama explore social change and evaluate their personal and political goals as they become members of the Southern voter registration campaign and pledge fraternities and sororities.

Seaton is a product of what she calls a show business family. One relative, Flournoy Miller, co-wrote the book for the 1921 musical “Shuffle Along,” which broke Broadway taboos with its story of African-Americans in love, 14 years before the Gershwins´  “Porgy and Bess.” (The show also gave us the well-known song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”)

Seaton´s grandmother played in a Southern minstrel troupe, and her mother wrote skits and plays for church.

“I remember memorizing and reciting (the work of African-American poet) Paul Lawrence Dunbar as a child,” Seaton said.

Seaton’s family joined “The Great Migration,” moving from Tennessee to Chicago. As a result, she said, her playwriting always went back and forth between themes of the South and the North.

She said she believes she has one more play in her repertoire, a play that dealing with the post-Civil War years. Playwriting for Seaton is an organic process.

“Every time, I’ve seen a play I’ve written, I’ve revised it,” Seaton said. “It’s not a play until it is performed, and the play is part of the process, not the whole.”

She said that the stage, the director’s point of view and the actors’ spoken words often change the interpretation and meaning of the original play: “When I watch a play I’ll hear a line or see a scene that isn’t working, and rewrite it.”

A playwright’s work is never done, according to Seaton. After the play is written, some of the real work begins, including making connections with a director who will shop the play around.

The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature meets at MSU Thursday through Saturday, and the seminars are open to the public; the entry fee is $25 (lunches and dinner are extra). Discussions cover everything from how Sinclair Lewis brought H.G. Wells to Main Street, to explorations of the writing of Theodore Roethke and John D. Voelker and analysis of the coverage of the Detroit riots of 1967.

More information on the conference is available at the society website at Seaton will be presented the award at a luncheon on Friday.