By Nancy LaMar-Rodgers / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

Playwright , Michael Bradford

Playwright, Michael Bradford

Playwright, Michael Bradford meets me in the lobby of the Garde Art  Theater in New London.  His voice is gentle, his manner, poised and gentlemanly. As we grab a spot on the stage to sit and talk, I am taken with Bradford’s modesty in acknowledging his own success. He seems to be more comfortable giving others the kudos for some of his major accomplishments.  Having just been appointed Artistic Director of the Connecticut Repertory Theater, Bradford has earned the praise and recognition; however, he brushes that off with the notion that his career has been a series of serendipitous events.

Born and raised in rural Arkansas City, Kansas, Bradford spent most of his young years learning what was important in life from his grandparents. “My grandparents were pretty old school and strict; and I often found myself on ‘punishment’, which meant that you could have all the books you wanted, but you were staying in the house…you were not going out to play.”

For Bradford, while he may not have known it then, his grandparents’ punishment was perhaps the beginning of his education in all things having to do with his future as a writer. “Neither one of my grandparents had a great deal of education; but they knew, or at least thought, like most African Americans at that time, that school was the ticket.  So they were adamant that I did well in school and got the best education that I could. They insisted that I be well read, spoke the King’s English, and there was no slang in our house. They were very strict about that.”

When it was time for Michael to attend high school, his grandparents thought it best that he should go to Colorado and attend school there, where he would live with his father for the first time. Bradford didn’t know his father; and it is this relationship, or lack thereof, that would painfully manifest itself in Michael’s play, Fathers and Sons.

Fathers and Sons, Poster

Fathers and Sons, Poster

Although he knew he loved reading and writing, Bradford wasn’t sure what he would do after high school.  It was not a given that you went to college and the reality was more that you found work and you fended for yourself. “We don’t feed grown men in this house.” Michael chuckles, sharing his grandmother’s words. “It was true; they didn’t feed grown men, and so it was my job to find my way in the world.”

“I sold encyclopedias door to door, I threw tires off the back of railroad trucks in LA, I did the gas station and the fast food places, I did just about every job.” All the while he was reading voraciously the works of African American female poets whose voices he found incredibly rhythmic and inspiring; and of course he was writing, looking to find his own voice.

“I wanted to write about African American life and relationships and the larger things about life. When you are that age, 19 or 20, 21, you really think you have some understanding.” Bradford adds, “let’s just say there was a great deal of bad writing in those days.”

When Bradford went to pick up a last paycheck from a job, he found himself at the bus station as well as in front of the Navy Recruiting office.“This guy came out and told me I was late for my appointment.  I told him I didn’t have one, and you know what? Three weeks later I found myself on a flight to San Diego!”

Bradford doesn’t regret what some might consider a deceptive move on the recruiter’s part.  This may have been the first serendipitous incident that would eventually get Bradford’s work out there for a larger audience. “I was stationed in Washington, started dating a young lady in Seattle, and she introduced me to theater.  We had a date one night. I wanted to go see the jazz quartet, but she had tickets to theater.”

Grudgingly, Bradford went to the theater that night, primarily because he did not want to miss out on the young lady’s company. It would be a night that would change the course of his life.

“The play was August Wilson’s,  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I thought to myself, I don’t know who wrote that, but that’s what I want to do,” Bradford recollects.

That night was the catalyst for Bradford.  He was consumed by the idea of turning his short stories into drama that could be performed by a cast of actors.  Luckily the military provided him with the stages and the people who would eventually bring his early work to life. “Every military base in the world has a theater. Officers and enlisted men and women get together, and nobody knows anything about theater. They just get together and do shows.  So I walked into the one in Washington and said, ‘I’m a playwright,’ and they said, ‘great, write us a play.’”

Bradford would continue this endeavor no matter where he was stationed; and before he knew it, he was turning his stories into plays, and his work was being performed all over the country.  He was beginning to finally believe in the idea that he could do this for a living … bring his stories to life on the stage.

Root Woman, Poster

Root Woman, Poster

He continued in the service, his last station being at the Groton Sub Base. It was during this time that the military was offering an early release for personnel. “They were offering a chunk of money if you agreed to get out early, but the reality was you couldn’t come back, couldn’t reenlist.”

Although it was a risky endeavor, Bradford decided to take the money and join civilian life.  He did a stint with Electric Boat, and then decided to go to school ending up at UConn’s Avery Point campus.  His intent was to get a Bachelors in General Studies with the intent that he would teach English and continue to write during the summers.

“I figured I would be perfectly happy with this arrangement,” he explains. But the stars had something else in mind for Bradford.  He met a woman named Kay Janney and enrolled in her History of Drama class.  Afterwards, Bradford presented Janney with one of his plays. She thought it good enough to perform at Avery Point.

Bradford was eventually accepted into Brooklyn College to complete an MFA.  For a young man who had never thought college was even an option, the idea that he was taken into the professional arena of theater was a dream come true.

For Bradford, wonderful things started happening. The American Place Theater wanted to produce one of his plays, and The Manhattan Theater Club was offering a fellowship. Bradford was ecstatic. His work was being read and produced. Yet Bradford still considers himself lucky in that he has never been one for self-promotion, and somehow his plays were getting into the right hands. “In the past 15 years my plays have been produced professionally at least once or twice a year.”  Bradford smiles and laughs, “For a guy who doesn’t send out his work, that’s pretty good.”

Since 2001 Bradford has been a professor of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut and was recently named as the Artistic Director for the Connecticut Repertory Theater. With this new appointment, Bradford feels that he is truly blessed and has in many ways come full circle.  I ask him about that night in Seattle when he reluctantly attended the theater with that young lady.

“I contacted her when the whole Facebook thing came about.  She is still there in Seattle. I told her that she has no idea how that night changed my life; that it is because of her insistence that we go to the play that my life has turned out as remarkably as it has.”

Bradford leans back, caught up in a frozen memory.

For a schedule of the Connecticut Repertory Theater Productions, check out: http://crt.uconn.edu

1 reply
  1. Candace Way
    Candace Way says:

    I have been privileged to know and worked with Michael Bradford. He is humble, he is a wonderful teacher whether in the classroom or during rehearsals. He just has a way of bringing you into his world.
    Quietly and humbly. He is a playwright who will continue to be an inspiration to many, and a treasure to those of us who love him and his work.

    Reply

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