October ‘Pumpkin’ crop yields quintet of indelicate tales



Chapman charts ‘the curdling point, where gentle people darken’

There are five beckoning slices of pie in this year’s Pumpkin Pie Show — but for the most nourishing one, to my taste, you have to go to both outer space with an astronaut named Ilan Ramon and down on the ground with an 11-year-old boy in East Texas whose concerned mother has just said: “Grady, honey, why don’t you say grace for us tonight.”

There, at the dining-room table, surrounded by his six older sisters, one older brother and their parents, Grady suddenly starts giving a blessing in Hebrew, even though “You just don’t come across that many Jews down here in Palestine, Texas.”

But Hebrew is the language in the sixteen charred pen-and-pencil pages of a diary the boy has found scattered over a nearby field — the in-flight diary entries of Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon, hero pilot of the Yom Kippur War, first-ever Israeli astronaut, dead along with six other crew members in the February 3, 2003, explosion of space shuttle Columbia.

Thus begins “Diary Debris” — the deeply restorative story-play No.4 of “Pumpkin Pie: Amber Alert,” all by Clay McLeod Chapman. Its companion pieces touch on subjects as indelicate as sweat, wrestling, masturbation, herpes, hymenoplasty (surgical restoration of virginity), chemical castration, and a high-strung high school teacher impregnated by one of her young charges, then gabbing about it nonstop to the boy’s mother.

And all based on truth — at least a nugget of truth — as for instance in this brief 2003 dispatch from the Associated Press that was e-mailed to our storyteller from “a kid in Boston” — Maxwell Kessler — who’d heard Chapman do a reading at Emerson College:

“Pages from an Israeli astronaut’s diary that survived the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia and a 37-mile fall to earth go on display this weekend for the first time in Jerusalem.”

Chapman gets tips like this — kickers — from all sorts of people all the time.

“Yes, yes, I’ve kept in touch with Maxwell Kessler. I owe him my life, really,” says Chapman with some slight creative exaggeration.

He not only invented the Pumpkin Pie Shows back in school in Roanoke, Virginia, he acts in them too and serves at least nominally as director. His companion players in this year’s “Amber” quintet are Hanna Cheek (an artistic mainstay of his ever since Sarah Lawrence in 2000) and Hannah Timmons.

Ms. Cheek has been especially applauded for her performance(s) as two mothers — of the killer and of a lovely girl who was killed — in last season’s Pumpkin Pie show “Commencement,” about one of those high-school slaughters that are now so endemic in this country.

Why Pumpkin Pie?

“That’s a Southern colloquialism,” Chapman told this department a year ago, “for a group of farm boys sitting around a campfire, swapping tales.”

If his tales are often more sordid than not, so be it. So is life, the Pumpkin advises us.

But sometimes it is also this. Eleven-year-old Grady speaking:

Most of the shuttle had landed out in Hemphill, but there were reports of vehicle fragments falling all through East Texas. Littlefield, Norfolk, Fort Polk. Even Louisiana and parts of Arkansas had reported pieces of debris. Over two thousand crash sites had cropped up over twenty-eight thousand square miles. Thirty-three counties in Texas alone.

I remember stepping into our front yard, lured outside by the sound of smashing glass. The windshield of my older brother’s Plymouth was completely shattered. Some steaming piece of metal had impaled the passenger-side seat. I could hear the impact of shuttle fragments hitting the roof of our house. Cylinders three feet wide. Loose tubing. A hailstorm of partly charred screws and bolts. It was raining metal everywhere.

Or this. Astronaut Ilan Ramon writing in his diary to his wife Rona, mother of their four children, as he looks down at earth and finally spots Israel as but a sliver, a fingernail, on the great globe itself:

Day Thirteen. Rona, even within zero gravity I can still feel the pull back towards earth. Towards you my love.

Or this:

And it was evening and it was morning of the sixth day, as it says in the Kiddush, and creation of heaven and earth were completed with all of their array, Blessed are You, Holy Master, our G-d, King of the Universe.

Makes you almost want to live, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, yeah, that’s [this year’s] play I like best too,” says Clay McLeod Chapman, who despite his immense black Karl Marx beard, and the fact that, with all else — a novel, a film, teaching at The Actors Studio — he’s been translating Yiddish classics into English, is not himself Jewish.

“Scottish by way of the South, Complete goyim,” says the 33-year-old son of potter Sue Henshaw, a single mother who is still plenty active. His father? “I’ve never even talked to him.”

Clay and his Indian-Italian wife, journalist Indrani Sen, are proud residents of Brooklyn. They try to keep up with the New York Times, and Clay, who was born in Roanoke, Virginia, still subscribes to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That’s printed on paper, case you wondered.

Of this year’s batch of Pumpkin Pies, he says:

“All five of these plays are about innocence and innocence lost — a very broad thematic hook we hang our hats on. And follow to the curdling point, where gentle people darken. Where people you wouldn’t mind knowing turn into people you would mind knowing.”

And always remember that other precept: The truth is stranger than fiction.