Eric Schmiedl, Playwriting Faculty
So. I’m a Cleveland kid. Born and raised. Generations of my family – both sides – have straddled the Cuyahoga River. Making soups in the kitchen at Hallie’s Department Store. Stamping out engine parts in the small tool and die shops on the near west side. Cheering when Jim Brown broke another tackle at Municipal Stadium. Trudging through record snow and around burning rivers. We are Clevelanders, through and through.
My wife, on the other hand, was born in D.C., and comes from a mixed cultural background. Her mother has Polish and Scottish roots while her father was an Igbo man from Nigeria. When she was nine her father moved the entire family back home to Nigeria. Ihiala. A village located in the central part of the country. A place where her family has lived and farmed and prayed for generations. Tending yams. Pounding cassava. Visiting the marketplace. Singing hymns at St. Silas Anglican Church. Surviving colonialization and civil war, they are resilient, proud Igbo people.
It’s always tickled us that we grew up in totally different hemispheres. Geographic and cultural. And yet we’re married. For almost thirty years. How does that happen?
A few years ago with the generous support of Playhouse Square, Cleveland Public Theatre, and a fellowship from The Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, we got the chance to explore this question theatrically. Starting with nothing more than an idea, we gathered a small team of artists diverse in age and culture. We told them our family stories. They told us their family stories. We drew maps. We improvised. We talked some more. It was a totally new way of playwriting for me. One that was very organic and reflected the personal nature of the subject. Still, the question remained: how do you bridge the gaps of distance and culture?
Eventually, we discovered that two people in our lives had served as critical guides. My wife’s ten-year-old cousin Antonia and my paternal grandmother, Granny Schmiedl. They were two remarkable people. Kind. Smart. Intuitive. Resourceful. They were each a force. But to the outside world, they were forgettable. A poor Black girl from a tiny village in West Africa. An old White woman from the middle west who had not even finished high school. And yet they had a profound influence over the lives of a boy from Cleveland and a girl from Ihiala. This discovery was a revelation and became the play My Hemisphere.
And I’m thinking a lot about Antonia and Granny Schmiedl these days in light of our current national journey. My understanding of Igbo cosmology notes that the veil separating our world from our ancestors is thin. They are with us always, and I could certainly use a touch of kindness and resourcefulness right now.
But I’m also thinking about them in light of the play, the process, and the wonderful artists who helped us create it. Listening. Collaborating. Investigating. Exploring. We let the stories guide us. We opened ourselves to the possibility of beauty while remaining confident that a dead end was not failure but an opportunity to find a new way. The resulting play has its own unique structure and voice. That’s not to say there aren’t traditional Western artistic components. Dramatic tension. Recognizable arcs. Strong characters who experience big transformations. They’re all there. But, they’re a bit messy, syncopated, and hopefully reflect the specific cultural blending of our hybrid Igbo-Euro-American story and the group that translated it.
In his influential 1982 book, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, Cornel West argues that “the very structure of modern discourse at its inception produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity as well as aesthetic and cultural ideals which require the constitution of the idea of white supremacy.” Right from its inception during the Age of Reason, modern Western thought saw European white culture as the ideal and everything else a poor imitation.
Forty years later Black, Indigenous and People of Color theatre makers have taken this argument into the 21st Century with their insightful and passionate letter, “Dear White American Theater.” Without a doubt this is a moment in our culture and country that demands new models, new tools, new voices that look beyond the restrictive, too often oppressive Western European white structures. Especially in the creation and appreciation of art. And the potential is transformational. I’ve experienced it firsthand. As I stand with Antonia and Granny Schmiedl and my fellow Spalding artists in the shadow of the 2020 Fall Residency, I am filled with such hope and inspiration. Ready to listen. Ready to learn. Ready to grow.
Schmiedl’s plays for adult and family audiences have been produced by The Cleveland Play House, The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Public Theatre, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and New Stages Theatre, among others. He is the recipient of a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (with the Denver Center), a Sloan Foundation Commission, a CAC Creative Workforce Fellowship, an Aurand Harris Fellowship and three Edgerton Awards for New American Plays. He is a graduate of Kent State University and the University of Hawaii.