By Jeff Stetson
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JEFF STETSON is the recipient of eight N.A.A.C.P. Theater Image awards for his long-running play The Meeting, which was aired on American Playhouse on PBS. A winner of many national drama awards whose work has been performed at the Eugene O”Neill Theater Center, he has also scripted projects for Steven Spielberg”s Amblin Productions and Warner Bros. Currently commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he lives in Marina del Rey, California.
As a child, I was an avid reader, particularly books by authors who explored the black experience, historical injustice and philosophies examining the nature of morality, retribution, revenge and the ability of the human spirit to transcend hate and evil to find a common humanity or brotherhood. Baldwin, Wright and Ellison were major influences as was the work of Saul Bellow along with literary icons like Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner.
I loved theater and read as many plays as I could, with an emphasis on the classics, from Shakespeare to O”Neill to Hansberry to Williams. The ability to infuse drama with emotion and ideas by using dialogue instead of action or exposition fascinated me. I thought it was very much in keeping with the African oral tradition which would later influence preachers within the black church as well as hustlers on the streets of the inner city, where the ability to use language could save your life and win battles that determined your hierarchal order or social status in the neighborhood.
I read a great deal of poetry and still do from E.E. Cummings to Langston Hughes to a contemporary poet I like a lot, Nikky Finney. I respect well written lyrics of songs for their inherent power to make you fall in love or deal with pain or cope with disappointment or simply feel good. The best writing for me has a mesmerizing or enchanting lyrical quality to it. Today, Toni Morrison and Gabriel Marquez are the most eloquent examples of that type of writing; hauntingly beautiful, powerful, often tragic and yet ultimately redemptive.
I”m also a huge fan of Zadie Smith, for her wit, intelligence, passion and humanity and Cornel West for his moral clarity and ability to merge social, spiritual and political themes into a coherent and dynamic vision of life and love.
All writing is political and, therefore, all artists have an enormous responsibility to their readers that go far beyond telling a great story. I”ve written poetry, songs, theater, screenplays, scripts for television both dramatic and situation comedy, academic essays and now I”ve completed my first novel. Each has a unique form and structure and requires the use of different creative muscles. But all have the same common purpose or goal, seeking the truth while writing about the human condition with respect, love and the belief that an individual may not be able to change the world but might influence the person or persons who can.