Emory Report
November 10, 2008
Volume 61, Number 11



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November 10
, 2008
‘American Wake’ gets remembrances into play

Vincent Murphy, resident artist of Theater Emory, was recently promoted to full professor, Department of Theater of Studies.

I’ve had the pleasure of going to several alumni weddings, some right here in Atlanta and others scattered from California to London. As memorable and joyful as weddings are, it is a funeral that stays most vivid in my healing experience of sharing with one of my favorite alums.

Dan Colman came to Emory as a Woodruff Scholar back in 1994 (at the time, I was an associate professor in theater studies and artistic producing director for Theater Emory and the Playwriting Center). Dan’s honor’s thesis was a two-person adaptation of Hamlet that I directed as the inaugural production in our Black Rose Elizabethan Playhouse that Theater Emory built on campus to research Elizabethan performance styles. It was highlighted by National Public Radio and the New York Times. My Phi Beta Kappa daughter Ariel, a double major in French and theater at Emory, played Ophelia.

In 1995 Dan played a major role for Theater Emory’s world premiere of Tim McDonough’s
“American Wake.” Developed and published in the acclaimed Theater Emory Playwriting Center, the play explored the Ireland of the famine years, where families — including Tim’s — held all night celebratory “wakes” as a way of saying goodbye to the young fleeing to the U.S. for jobs and food. Dan played Tim’s father, who had left his farm in the small village of Gurteen to go to America.

Two years later, Dan went to that Irish village to meet some of the remaining inhabitants and share his experience of playing Tim’s father. This was during Dan’s senior year at Emory, when looking out to the wider world and connecting to it became crucial to him.

Embraced by the community in Gurteen, Dan found himself invited to a funeral of a local resident known as “The Quarter Poet,” and they read one of the poet’s poems during the funeral service. It was a moving, simple poem, and afterward, at the pub owned by Tim’s cousin, one of the poet’s sisters kindly let Dan copy down the words.

Some years later I’m flying to L.A. with the ashes of my younger brother taken by cancer. My brother lived by the Pacific and wanted his remains put into his beloved ocean. Dan picked me up at the airport and drove me to the ocean. I told him about my brother, Bobby. Before I poured the ashes in the sea, Dan told me his story of the Irish eulogy poem. He recited the poem as I let my brother go.

Now, Dan is doing a production for his MFA in acting at the Yale Drama School and I go to see it. His supportive parents are there too, and after the show they drive me to Providence, R.I., where I’m meeting a poet friend. On the way I mention that we’ve published “American Wake,” and Dan’s dad says that it is his favorite play. I promise to mail him a copy, and a few days later when I return to Emory, I do.

About a week later I get a call from Dan. His dad has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. I fly up to Cape Cod for the funeral. At the reception, Dan tells me that the night before he passed his dad called him and read a favorite speech. It was from “American Wake.”