Oakland native Marcus Gardley is an acclaimed poet, playwright, screenwriter, and TV writer. He won the 2022 WGA award for best adapted long-form series for MAID (Netflix). His play “The House That Will Not Stand” had its world premiere with Berkeley Rep in January 2014 and won the 2019 Obie Award. His play, “black odyssey,” was produced by Cal Shakes in 2017. In TV, he has written for several series, including Boots Riley’s “I’m A Virgo” (Amazon), “The Chi” (Showtime), “Foundation” (Apple), and “Tales of the City” (Netflix). His feature adaptation of “The Color Purple” musical will be released in theaters in December 2023, and Warner Brothers just picked up his Marvin Gaye biopic.
In a conversation, Marcus Gardley spoke about his upcoming production, “Lear” at Cal Shakes, his work in TV and the movies, Oprah, growing up in Oakland, and how he grew into a life as a writer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Have you been in the Bay Area for rehearsals of Lear?
Yes, I’ve been back and forth. I’ve been living in LA for about five years. I’ve been working in TV now, so I have to live here. But I miss Oakland, my favorite city in the world.
I’ve enjoyed your TV work. It’s very varied.
I try to change up the genre to keep myself interested. It’s been quite a journey.
And you’ve got some big fascinating things coming up. I love the idea of the Marvin Gaye bio project.
Yes, “What’s Going On” is a movie I’m doing with director Allen Hughes. We start shooting at the end of the year. We haven’t cast the lead yet. We’re doing that now.
And the musical version of The Color Purple that you adapted for the screen…
We just finished shooting that a couple of months ago. And they’re in the editing process right now. I’ll see the final cut when they’re done.
Let’s talk about “Lear.” What made you want to place the setting in the Fillmore District in San Francisco in the 1960s?
I wanted this production to be close to home. Most of what I write takes place in the Bay Area. “King Lear” resonated with the notion of being unhoused and the loss of memory. In the play, Lear has trouble with his memory. I’m always talking about what we as a community forget. Generations pass down stories and heirlooms in our community. What is kept in the family and community are major themes in this production of “King Lear.”
Did you know people who lived in the Fillmore District during that redevelopment?
Yes, my great-grandmother did. Growing up, she instilled with me the importance of buying a house in the Bay Area — something to hang on to, to be proud of. In Oakland, where I grew up, it was a major thing that you would inherit the house your family lived in. Unfortunately, we watched the neighborhood decline as those children didn’t care for the homes as their parents did. That really stayed with me, and I wanted to write about that in this play.
Why do you think they gave up their legacy?
The neighborhood became infected with drugs and became violent. So, some moved away. They didn’t have the same values their parents had and didn’t really grasp the importance of keeping those homes, so they would lose them. Some of them didn’t pay their taxes. Others let them fall to ruin.
Now we are seeing people treasuring where they live. The downside is that some are being priced out of their old neighborhoods.
That’s exactly right.
How did your version of “Lear” get started?
Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned writers to do a modern translation of every Shakespeare play. My first version, a modern version of Lear, was placed in Britain. Then Cal Shakes called me; they loved the play. They wanted me to put my own spin on it. I told them I would love to place it in the Bay Area, and I have been obsessed with the Fillmore District since my Grandmother passed away. So much about the play coincided with the Fillmore while it was being redeveloped and dismantled by freeways. Such a rich history there.
Can you tell me about the music in “Lear”?
It’s been an exciting adventure, a happy accident. I love the music, and I love Marcus Shelby. I’ve worked with him before. I knew I wanted jazz because, in the 1960s, the Fillmore District used to be called the Harlem of the West. We didn’t know how jazz would sound against the highly poetic language, but it’s been a beautiful marriage. Some characters sing in a jazz club. There is entrance music played as characters enter the stage. The music is mainly in the background.
The co-director, Eric Ting, who I recently interviewed, said that you were still making changes to the play during rehearsals. He said it laughingly, but I might not be so thrilled about the changes if I were directing.
This is a new play for all intents and purposes, and I’ll be making changes to it until opening night. That’s just the nature of it. I pretty much rewrote the whole thing. But the more rewrites I did, the more Eric and the cast felt like it needed to be more in my voice. I’m glad I did it. It’s better.
How much of the original Shakespeare plot of “King Lear” are you keeping?
I kept all of it. There’s a beautiful marriage between the Fillmore story and the Lear story without changing the plot. It fits like a puzzle piece. It just takes place in a more specific area. The characters are more like people you know from the 1960s.
What moves you about Eric Ting?
He’s fearless. He has a really strong eye and understands the depth of character. When I write, sometimes I’ll make a radical choice. I won’t know why I made it, but I want to explore it. Eric’s always up for the challenge and challenging the audience. He respects the work, leads with kindness, and everyone feels heard. He knows how to create an environment where everyone can be their best selves.
From what you are saying, it seems like Eric is different from some other people you have worked with who are prima donnas or lead with anger.
Lead with anger, yes. When working on a new play, you must be fearless and trust the process. Many directors get nervous when people don’t stick to a schedule or when there are surprises. Directors get scared, and they don’t have faith. Not everyone has been that easy.
Could you generalize and say TV directors are more like that than theater directors?
Theater directors have a lot more creative control. In TV, directors are just hired to show up for a couple of days and shoot. In TV, I rarely work with directors. They are kept away from the writers because the script has already been approved, and no one wants changes. They are technicians, really. They don’t work much with the actors either. They just go in and shoot and keep to themselves.
In films like the new musical version of “The Color Purple,” were the directors more prominent?
Absolutely right — the most prominent, and the writer is the least prominent. Often, when you write a script, it’s approved, and your job is done. Directors are sometimes intimidated by writers. But “The Color Purple” was very different, and I was grateful. They kept me along through the process, but that’s rare. I was surprised they let me come to the set. But Oprah produced “The Color Purple,” and she wanted me around. And I got along very well with the director [Blitz Bazawule], so he wanted me around too.
What were you like as a student at Oakland’s Castlemont High?
I was very shy, a bit of a loner, and obsessed with books. I did have several friends but kept to myself. I was heavily involved in my father’s Church. I had a sheltered life. I would leave school, go to Church, and spend most of the week there. I had a great time. I loved my high school years and loved Oakland. If you had asked me then, writing plays was the last thing on my mind. I intended to go into international business or pre-med. Life is funny. I don’t know how I ended up here.
But you explored in college, I gather.
Yes, exploring your interests and hobbies is the most important thing. That’s what makes you a well-rounded human being.
Is the anything else that you would like culturevulture readers to know?
I hope that people who come to see my plays will feel free to interact and have a communal experience. It’s OK to laugh and sing along, be a bit loud — like a church service, so long as you can hear the actors. Let your hair down, and enjoy. Lear is a celebration of language and family. Since the pandemic has caused such isolation, I’m hoping this play can be part of what brings up back together as a community.