“The boats will be ready for the Flood, and we’re not going to work for the Pharaoh unless we have a union contract,” an informed Adam says in “No Snakes in This Grass,” a one-act play written by the director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson.
A modern rendition of the Book of Genesis first performed during the Civil Rights Movement, the play revolves around Adam, who has prepared himself for whatever hardships God may throw his way, except one: a black Eve.
In this 35-minute performance, Adam and Eve attempt to reconcile their differences, but their inability to get along eventually leads to the Fall, and their banishment from Eden.
“It’s interesting to think about, because if you’re staying true to the Bible story, Adam and Eve are obviously joined,” Magnuson said. “She comes from his rib, they’re made of the same flesh.”
Written when Magnuson was 24, “No Snakes in This Grass” has since been reproduced at countless churches and theaters nationwide.
“I was working in East Harlem in the ’60s, so the issue of race was pretty hard to avoid,” Magnuson said. “I was a young playwright, a churchgoing kid, and I wanted to make something mischievous.”
Last summer, Magnuson returned to New York to witness The Lincoln Center’s rendition of his play, celebrating the 40th anniversary of their out-of-doors theater. Robbie Ann Darby, a recent graduate from UT’s theater program, played Eve. This Friday the same cast will perform on the Ransom Center plaza.
“Some of the language and the painful jokes and jives are bound to their time, so I was worried that the play might not be as applicable today,” Magnuson said. “But looking at the audiences’ faces ... these issues are still dismayingly alive.”
Coinciding with the Civil Rights theme, “No Snakes in This Grass” was first performed on the street, a popular trend at the time, especially for plays with political or social content.
“Street art has a very democratic air about it. It doesn’t cost 80 bucks, and anyone can walk up and be affected by it,” Magnuson said. “There are these sidewalk artists who paint with water, so the image only lasts until the water dries. That’s how I think of street theater.”
Performed outdoors and concerning itself with inflammatory topics, Magnuson’s play also employs unconventional dramatic techniques, like intentionally breaking character.
“Everyone was experimenting in the ’60s, and I guess you could call my play experimental,” Magnuson said.
Though Magnuson believes a less traditional approach to theater can be enjoyable and “puckish,” when it comes to his role at the Michener Center, UT’s MFA program for creative writers, he encourages young artists to stay true to their own voice.
“We try not to steer anyone in any given direction,” he said. “Talents are various and I want students to have the courage to follow tradition, too.”
Since writing his take on the Adam and Eve story, Magnuson has written eight novels and worked for TV shows such as “Knot’s Landing” and “Class of ’96.” Though he claims he “always feels like the newest thing is going to be the best thing,” he is happy to revisit his earlier work as well.
“It’s not exactly my most sophisticated work. It’s light, it’s accessible, but people keep returning to it, so I think it says something to people,” Magnuson said.